Canada: The World’s Freest Country?

A recent article at Foreign Policy makes the provocative case that our neighbor to the north has overtaken us as the world’s leading beacon of liberty and prosperity (a claim that, to be sure, was always suspect in practice, yet has remained a bedrock of American identity, prestige, and soft power).

The claim is based on the results of the newly published 2015 Legatum Prosperity Index, an annual report issued by the Legatum Institute that measures countries’ performance in eight categories of human flourishing, such as personal freedom, safety and security, and governance.

While Canada did not reach the top spot — that honor went to Norway for the seventh consecutive time — it did rank a very respectable sixth place, compared to the United States’ 11th place. Aside from seventh-place Australia, Canada was the only medium sized country to make it to the top ten; the rest were small European (mostly Nordic) and Anglophone nations.

Canada shined mostly on account of its people’s attitude towards immigrants and the trajectory of their country. It is all the more impressive given the many woes and troubles attributed to the much-disliked Conservative administration of Stephen Harper, which over the last decade has been accused of making the country increasingly authoritarian, intolerant, and socially backwards (a development that some Canadians tellingly, only half-jokingly, called “Americanization“) . Continue reading

Coffee or Tea — What is the World’s Drink of Choice?

The two beverages have ancient roots, but only over the last couple of centuries have they become truly global commodities. The following map from The Economist shows which countries and regions favor which drink. (You can find the interactive version here.)

Coffee vs. Tea

There is a clear East-West divide: among nearly all Western countries — with the notable exception of the United Kingdom — coffee trounces tea, despite the latter beverage’s increasing popularity. Meanwhile, across most of Africa and Asia, tea is the drink of choice, with the Philippines, South Korea, and Thailand being clear outliers.

Other countries such as Australia, Chile, New Zealand, and Saudi Arabia remain divided. Guatemala stands out as being the most overwhelmingly favorable towards coffee (99.6 percent) while Kenyans are the most enthusiastic for tea (99.2 percent). Overall, most countries prefer coffee, though tea probably has the most total drinkers, given its popularity in big nations like China, India, and Nigeria.

How Many National Anthems Are Plagiarized?

Along with a flag and coat of arms, an anthem forms an integral part of a nation’s identity. So one could imagine how scandalous it would be if the song that officially celebrates a nation’s culture and traditions was in fact stolen from somewhere else — including a raunchy American movie.

According to PRI, the national anthem of Bosnia — which was selected to reflect the country’s unity amid bitter ethnic divide — is remarkably similar to, of all things, the opening music of National Lampoon’s Animal House, the 1978 comedy about a misfit fraternity. Compare the two below and decide for yourself.

Animal House.

Bosnian National Anthem (Državna himna Bosne i Hercegovine)

The two melodies were allegedly so similar that some in the country called for the composer, Bosnian-born Serb Dusan Sestic, to be sued for plagiarism (albeit motivated more by opportunism and nationalist spite among those who disliked the anthem and what it stands for). Needless to say, some Bosnians called for the anthem to be dropped, given how embarrassing such an association would be.  Continue reading

A More Religious World

The Atlantic reports on a major new Pew study on global religious demographics that projects two-thirds of the world’s population will be either Christian or Muslim — with the latter outnumbering the former, albeit by a percentage point or two.

The Muslim population, for example, is expected to grow twice as fast as the rest of the world’s population between now and 2050, largely because Muslims tend to be young and have high fertility rates. A majority of Muslims will still live in Asia and the Pacific region, as they do now (even though Islam is the predominant religion of the Middle East, only one in five Muslims live there). While their life expectancy will likely rise over the next four decades, on average, Muslims will still die younger than members of any other religion, including folk religions. Jews, on the other hand, will live the longest; in 2050, the group’s life expectancy will be 85, compared with 75 for Muslims. This is partly because the Jewish population is so concentrated, Hackett said: Roughly 80 percent of Jews live in Israel or the United States, both highly developed countries.

But perhaps the most significant finding is that Muslims may gradually overtake Christians as the world’s largest religious group in the coming decades.

The following graph charts this progression:

This trend is part of the wider shift in population and cultural power to the developing world, especially Asia, where countries like India and China will become battlegrounds of the world’s major religions:

One open question is how religiosity will play out in China. Right now, there isn’t a lot of reliable data about religious affiliation in the world’s most populous country, Hackett said. Most population information comes from the government, which has been more or less hostile toward organized religion since the late 1960s; even if the country’s citizens are religious, they might be unlikely to share their beliefs on a government questionnaire, he said. One scholar, the Purdue University professor Fenggang Yang, says the country is becoming more faithful, though. He estimates that the percentage of Christians in China could grow from 5 percent in 2010 to 67 percent in 2050, based on the growth rate of the religion over time; if this came true, it would significantly shift the world’s total Christian population.

Meanwhile, the historic core of Christianity, Europe, will see its religiosity and subsequent influence over that faith decline:

In Europe and beyond, age, fertility rates, and migration are the most important factors in projected population changes, but religious conversion also plays a minor role in the results. Despite Christianity’s tradition of evangelism, the faith is expected to lose a net total of about 66 million people around the world due to conversions, accounting for both those who convert into the faith and those who convert out. A significant portion of those converts will likely become unaffiliated, a group that’s expected to grow by a net total of roughly 61 million purely due to people leaving their religions (as opposed to via higher birth rates, etc.)

We may well see a future where Christian aesthetics and even doctrine starts to become shaped by Chinese and African culture (not to mention visa versa). One can see widespread blending (e.g. syncretism) of folk traditions with Christianity in places like Sub-Saharan Africa, which is another center of growth for the faith and Islam:

For both Christianity and Islam, the region with the most potential will be sub-Saharan Africa, where the population is expected to double in roughly four decades due to extremely high fertility rates. The number of Christians in the region is also expected to double, reaching over 1.1. billion people, and the Muslim population is projected to grow by an astounding 170 percent, hitting nearly 670 million. Largely because of these trends, researchers estimate that two-thirds of the world’s population will be Christian or Muslim by 2100.

And what about all the research and debate concerning the rise of secularism and atheism? Well as noted before, the religiously unaffiliated — which run the gamut from hard atheists to the nonetheless spiritual — will increase significantly, albeit mostly in the “old” Christian West.

Here is what the projections show from 2010 to 2050. Note that it looks at conversions alone, not natural birth rates (which are typically much higher among Muslims, Christians, and Hindus than among Buddhist, Jews, and the non-religious).

It is worth reiterating that these are just estimates, albeit ones based on fairly comprehensive and substantive research (Pew tends to have a good track record). There is no telling how much will change over the coming decades, especially in a world where religious conflict, dialogue, and interaction alike is higher than ever.

Moreover, this is hardly as clear-cut as Christianity vs. Islam vs. secularists etc. Each of these groups have their own internal problems and divisions; Protestants, namely the Evangelical kind, are making inroads into historically Catholic strongholds like Brazil and Central America, and are competing amongst themselves for souls. The Shia and Sunni split continues to spill more blood, while the more mystical and liberal Sufis are often distrusted and persecuted by Islamic conservatives.

Meanwhile, the broad tent that is “unaffiliated” encompasses such divergent groups as explicit atheists, agnostics, the vaguely spiritual and deistic, and even New Agers who otherwise believe in some sort of divine or supernatural power or another yet choose not to label themselves religious. Secular people hardly represent a united or coherent front (especially as the broader and more technical definition of the term would include practicing Christian or Muslims who simply do not want their religion to influence politics or social policy).

In short, the picture, as can always be expected, is complicated. But if these projections hold out, it does indeed seem to be the case that while the world will remain religiously diverse — look at the growth, by conversion alone, of various folk traditions and “other” non-major religions — Christianity, Islam, and to a lesser degree Irreligion will represent the dominant strains of thought and lifestyle.

But even this does not show how such labels will change and what these faiths (or lack thereof) will look like doctrinally, culturally, and ideologically. Will Christianity continue to take on the indigenous concepts of its majority African and Asian populations; will Islam shift towards more traditional, moderate, or mystical forms, as it is currently contending with? Will secular people become more hardened into outright atheism or agnosticism, or lean towards vaguely spiritual New Age or Eastern manifestations?

I guess I will see for myself in my lifetime. What are your thoughts?

Lessons On Modern Corporate Malfeasance From The British East India Company

We still talk about the British conquering India, but that phrase disguises a more sinister reality. It was not the British government that seized India at the end of the 18th century, but a dangerously unregulated private company headquartered in one small office, five windows wide, in London, and managed in India by an unstable sociopath – Clive.

In many ways the EIC was a model of corporate efficiency: 100 years into its history, it had only 35 permanent employees in its head office. Nevertheless, that skeleton staff executed a corporate coup unparalleled in history: the military conquest, subjugation and plunder of vast tracts of southern Asia. It almost certainly remains the supreme act of corporate violence in world history. For all the power wielded today by the world’s largest corporations – whether ExxonMobil, Walmart or Google – they are tame beasts compared with the ravaging territorial appetites of the militarised East India Company. Yet if history shows anything, it is that in the intimate dance between the power of the state and that of the corporation, while the latter can be regulated, it will use all the resources in its power to resist.

When it suited, the EIC made much of its legal separation from the government. It argued forcefully, and successfully, that the document signed by Shah Alam – known as the Diwani – was the legal property of the company, not the Crown, even though the government had spent a massive sum on naval and military operations protecting the EIC’s Indian acquisitions. But the MPs who voted to uphold this legal distinction were not exactly neutral: nearly a quarter of them held company stock, which would have plummeted in value had the Crown taken over. For the same reason, the need to protect the company from foreign competition became a major aim of British foreign policy.

— , “The East India Company: The original corporate raiders“, The Guardian

A lot of relevant lessons to this day. While modern big companies are not as brazen or blatant in their exercise of power, they most certainly prey open societies where rule of law is weak or easy to co-opt. Even in the most developed democracies, such private entities hold tremendous sway, with their policies and personnel often interchangeable with those of the public sector.

…The corporation – a revolutionary European invention contemporaneous with the beginnings of European colonialism, and which helped give Europe its competitive edge – has continued to thrive long after the collapse of European imperialism. When historians discuss the legacy of British colonialism in India, they usually mention democracy, the rule of law, railways, tea and cricket. Yet the idea of the joint-stock company is arguably one of Britain’s most important exports to India, and the one that has for better or worse changed South Asia as much any other European idea. Its influence certainly outweighs that of communism and Protestant Christianity, and possibly even that of democracy.

Companies and corporations now occupy the time and energy of more Indians than any institution other than the family. This should come as no surprise: as Ira Jackson, the former director of Harvard’s Centre for Business and Government, recently noted, corporations and their leaders have today “displaced politics and politicians as … the new high priests and oligarchs of our system”. Covertly, companies still govern the lives of a significant proportion of the human race.

The 300-year-old question of how to cope with the power and perils of large multinational corporations remains today without a clear answer: it is not clear how a nation state can adequately protect itself and its citizens from corporate excess. As the international subprime bubble and bank collapses of 2007-2009 have so recently demonstrated, just as corporations can shape the destiny of nations, they can also drag down their economies. In all, US and European banks lost more than $1tn on toxic assets from January 2007 to September 2009. What Burke feared the East India Company would do to England in 1772 actually happened to Iceland in 2008-11, when the systemic collapse of all three of the country’s major privately owned commercial banks brought the country to the brink of complete bankruptcy. A powerful corporation can still overwhelm or subvert a state every bit as effectively as the East India Company did in Bengal in 1765.

Corporate influence, with its fatal mix of power, money and unaccountability, is particularly potent and dangerous in frail states where corporations are insufficiently or ineffectually regulated, and where the purchasing power of a large company can outbid or overwhelm an underfunded government. This would seem to have been the case under the Congress government that ruled India until last year. Yet as we have seen in London, media organisations can still bend under the influence of corporations such as HSBC – while Sir Malcolm Rifkind’s boast about opening British embassies for the benefit of Chinese firms shows that the nexus between business and politics is as tight as it has ever been.

The East India Company no longer exists, and it has, thankfully, no exact modern equivalent. Walmart, which is the world’s largest corporation in revenue terms, does not number among its assets a fleet of nuclear submarines; neither Facebook nor Shell possesses regiments of infantry. Yet the East India Company – the first great multinational corporation, and the first to run amok – was the ultimate model for many of today’s joint-stock corporations. The most powerful among them do not need their own armies: they can rely on governments to protect their interests and bail them out. The East India Company remains history’s most terrifying warning about the potential for the abuse of corporate power – and the insidious means by which the interests of shareholders become those of the state. Three hundred and fifteen years after its founding, its story has never been more current.

The Heroic White Helmets of Syria

Amid one of the most brutal conflicts and humanitarian crises of the 21st century, a small but powerful force for good has emerged against all odds to do what it can to help. These are the White Helmets of Syria, a volunteer group that offers well-needed emergency services to the millions across the nation who are continually slaughtered and maimed in the nearly four-year conflict.

More from Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times:

There are more than 2,200 volunteers in the White Helmets, mostly men but a growing number of women as well. The White Helmets are unpaid and unarmed, and they risk their lives to save others. More than 80 have been killed in the line of duty, the group says, largely because Syrian military aircraft often return for a “double-tap” — dropping bombs on the rescuers.

Wearing simple white construction helmets as feeble protection from those “double-tap” bombings, the White Helmets are strictly humanitarian. They even have rescued some of the officers of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad who are bombing them.

Since the White Helmets began in 2013, its members have saved more than 12,500 lives by its count.

A reputation for nonpolitical humanitarianism has allowed the White Helmets to work across lines of rival militias, including the Islamic State. In a land short of heroes and long on violence, many rally round the White Helmets. Syria may be notorious today for cruelty and suffering, but these men and women are a reminder of the human capacity for courage, strength and resilience.

I had the supreme honor of donating to this group last winter, but I wish I could do more. They are always in need of funding, so give what you can or spread the word. Their website is here.

Taipei Sounds Like My Kind of Town

A typical Saturday night in Taiwan’s largest city.

Among the many places on my travel list is Taiwan (officially the Republic of China). As one of the most developed and multicultural countries in the world, it offers a lot to see and do — including one of the world’s most thriving bibliophile communities. As the New York Times highlights, its lively capital, Taipei, leads the world in 24-hour bookstores.

At a time when many bookstores in the United States are struggling in the face of an onslaught from the online retailer Amazon, Eslite is thriving. It has 43 stores in Taiwan and one in Hong Kong. The company has plans to open two branches in mainland China this year, in Shanghai and Suzhou. Sales rose more than 15 percent in 2013 in its listed arm, and profits are rising as well.

One secret to Eslite’s success is that it is far more than a bookstore. While the Borders chain, now defunct, in the United States featured coffee shops, Eslite stores are more like self-contained shopping malls. About 60 percent of sales come from books. The rest comes from items like food, kitchenware, music, wine, jewelry, watches, movies, toys — sold in shops interspersed throughout the bookstores. One branch in Taipei has a movie theater.

Another reason for its success is the character of the city where the company was founded in 1989. As in many Asian cities, people work late into the night, and a company survey in 1999 suggested that many people would frequent a 24-hour bookstore. The busiest time for the bookstore is between 10 p.m. and 2 a.m., according to Timothy Wang, a company spokesman.

Indeed, it appears there is something particularly Taiwanese about this business model, which is perhaps why it seems unique only to the country.

“People in Taiwan, particularly in Taipei, are really calm. They really like to read books,” Ms. Yang said. “This is entertainment for us.”

“People really wanted to come read books late at night,” Mr. Wang said in a telephone interview. “Some young travelers who can’t find a hotel bring their baggage and settle down in the bookstore. They feel that the environment at Eslite is really peaceful.”

I cannot wait to experience it for myself someday.

Global Spotlight: Socotra, Yemen

Socotra (also spelled Soqotra) is an archipelago of four islands in the Indian Ocean that is part of Yemen. Evidence of human settlement go back to antiquity, where the island served as a stopover for various trade routes that passed by. However, there are signs of a pre-human presence going back over a million years. Ancient inscriptions have been found written in everything from Aramaic and Greek, to pro-Arabic and ancient Indian scripts.

Today, only around 50,000 people live on Socotra, most of them eking out a living as subsistence farmers and fishers. A product of the area’s isolation, they continue to speak a nearly extinct language alongside their own distinct Arabic dialect.

Socotra’s long geographic isolation, combined with its unforgiving heat and dryness, have created a distinct and spectacular ecosystem comprised of flora and fauna found nowhere else in the world; nearly 700 species are unique to the area (only Hawaii, New Caledonia, and the Galapagos Islands surpass it in terms of sheer biodiversity). For this it has been recognized as a world heritage site and nicknamed the Jewel of the Arabian Sea. 

Among the most famous occupant is the dragon blood tree, so named for its crimson red sap, which was highly valued for centuries as a dye, medicine, glue, lipstick, and even breath-freshener. Because it was believed to be dragon’s blood — a fact that could not be unverified in ancient times given the island’s seclusion — the sap was also valued in alchemy, and even today many inhabitants of the island and nearby areas allegedly regard it as a miracle cure for all sorts of ailments.

Socotra, Yemen IV

Socotra continues to retain its centuries-long mystique and character, offering an often alien landscape that is found nowhere else in the world.

Red Star Tales: A Century’s Worth of Russian / Soviet Literature

If you appreciate unusual and obscure science fiction (in the West anyway), or just want to explore something different and interesting, consider backing this Kickstarter campaign, which seeks to compile previously untranslated Soviet and Russian works.

This Kickstarter project will sponsor the publication in 2015 of the first comprehensive edition of truly notable Russian and Soviet science fiction – works chosen for their artistic and scientific merit, not because of any political or ideological agenda.

The 400+-page volume will include 18 stories, spanning from path-breaking, pre-revolutionary works of the 1890s, through the difficult Stalinist era, to post-Soviet stories published in the 1980s and 90s.

None of the works in this volume has ever been translated into English before, and we are engaging the services of some of the finest translators available to help us produce the sort of quality publication our 25-year-old company is known for.

You can see the official promotional video below, which offers a glimpse of some of the intriguing themes and plots of some of these works.

The creator of the project, Russian Life, is one of the largest publishers of Russian literature in the U.S., and virtually the only English-language periodical on Russian lifestyle, history, and culture. (I am a subscriber and regular visitor.) So I am confident they will deliver on this enticing treat.

$16,000 does not seem like a lot to ask for providing a hefty sampling of one of the world’s most prolific, yet obscure, producers of fiction and thought. You do not have to be a Russophile to appreciate quality science fiction, whatever its source.