Autonomous Hui

In form, if not in fact, the structure of Chinese sub-provincial units goes as follows:

  • Region (province)
    • Prefecture
      • County (and/or district)

There may be one or many counties/districts in a prefecture and one or many prefectures in a region.  China also has the idea, if not in fact, of autonomous regions, prefectures, and counties.  The general naming structure is: <placename> <ethnicity> <“autonomous”> <unit>, where unit could be region, prefecture, or county/district.  So, for example, you have, officially, the “Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.”  But the autonomous designation is, as it were, autonomous, so you end up with situations like:

  • Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region
    • Bayin’gholin Mongol Autonomous Prefecture
      • Yanqui Hui Autonomous County

So that’s a nominally autonomous region of Hui (Han Chinese Muslims) within a Mongol autonomous prefecture within a Uyghur autonomous region, none of which are, of course, in the slightest bit autonomous.

Assertion: marriage

Marriage is an assertion.  A man and a woman, call them Bob and Alice, assert they are married and so they are.  Bob asserts to others that he is married to Alice and this assertion is accepted as valid.  Their claim is accepted at face value by their community and supported by their society’s institutions.  

This pertains in both formal and informal situations.  Alice informally asserts that she is married through explicit symbols and claims, such as her wedding ring, and by claiming the state of marriage in formal documents such as tax returns, health insurance, birth certificates, wills and trusts, and health care directives.  

There is normally no check on this assertion.  In twelve years of marriage I have never once been asked to prove that I am married.  I have a copy of our marriage certificate, the legal document, but I have never once had the occasion to present it in support of the assertion of my married state.  I’ve asked others about this, including my parents who’ve been married for 49 years, and I have yet to hear of a situation where someone was required to prove through documentation that they were indeed married.  I’m sure those situations exist, but they’re boundary conditions: immigration officials doubting that Alice and Bob are really a couple and not just married for purposes of obtaining citizenship, for example, or a messy divorce where Alice claims that she was never married to Bob in the first place and thus doesn’t owe him the alimony he claims.   

As an everyday matter, in both formal and informal situations, marriage is an assertion between two people.

“Common law marriage” recognizes the situation of couple that assets their marriage, without any external agency (the state or the church).  Common law, the law of precedents, is always superceded by statutory law so that as we put laws on the books they take priority over the body of judicial precedents.  It is important to note, though, that in the past there was clear legal precedent for the validity of marriage solely by the agency of the two parties involved.  Common law marriage in the US is only recognized in eleven states today, and even in those states to varying degrees; some recognize its validity only for probate or grandfathered in prior to the 1990s, for instance.  In all cases, though, it’s worth noting that common law marriage *requires* assertion; simply living together, or owning property and having children together, is never adequate.

I believe that the situation in canon law, the religous law of the Catholic Church, at least in the past, was similar to our common law tradition; Alice and Bob did not need a priest for their marriage to be valid.  The priest is there as a representative or a witness not as the agent granting the marriage.  

So the fact that the state or the church today intervenes and ‘grants’ marriages — “by the authority invested in me by the state of Illinios, I now pronounce you husband and wife” —  represents diachronic change in the institution of marriage which was in the past, and is still in practical terms today, an assertion between the couple.

We can legislate the institution of marriage all we want but we need to very clearly acknowledge that this legislation, specifically the claim of the state to agency, is innovation and not tradition.

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Notes on the train wreck: Sanders Theatre panel on the economy

I went to a panel discussion tonight at Harvard on the current economic crisis. I figured the topic was important enough for me to skip out of work early (I was in a training class in Waltham) although the session did nothing to calm my anxiety about the current situation.

My notes on the discussion:

Jay Light, dean of the Business School

There are three main issues in the crisis at the moment:

(1) leverage

(2) transparency

(3) liquidity

Traditionally, home prices in the US have been 2.8 to 3.0 times income but it’s gone to 4.0 in the US and even higher elsewhere (6.0 in the UK, for example.) Short term credit markets have seized up. It’s been like a slow-motion train wreck, although the wreck has speeded up in the past 10-12 days. To resolve it we need the $700 billion to stop the patient from bleeding to death in the operating room. Next, we need to stablize the patient over the course of the next few months and then in the long term go through some process of rehabilitation, undoubtedly including regulatory reforms.

Rob Kaplan, professor of management and former vice-chairman of Goldman Sachs

The real problem that the economy is facing is that it’s engine of growth, the middle-American family, has slowed. The middle class, he said, is disappearing. Over the past ten years, middle class wages have stagnated but costs — including food, energy, and especially health care costs — have been rising rapidly,. This gap has been financed by tapping the equity in homes, a perfectly rational economic choice.

Like Jay Light, Kaplan believes the $700b plan is good and necessary but alone it is not enough. We as a country need comprehensive policy reforms to support the engine of the US economy, the middle class.

Elizabeth Warren, law professor

First of all, let’s be clear that this isn’t the fault of poor people; we hear about subprime loans and we think about poor people getting into houses they couldn’t afford but 80% of subprime loans were existing homeowners re-financing. It turned into a giant Ponzi scheme that inevitably came crashing down.

We have a new home finance industry that was never tested by a bubble and it’s clear that it didn’t survive its test.

One problem is that we don’t have a one-to-one correspondence between the debt owner and the debtor. Because mortgages were divided up and bundled you can’t work out specific situations between the lndor and the borrower like you could in the past. Instead, what we have is a zillion fractionalized shares. Ten percent of what the government will buy will be actual whole mortgages.

Her recommended solution is a Financial Product Safety Commission because at the base of it we’re dealing with a dirty faulty product. It doesn’t meet basic ‘safety’ requirements; if it was a toaster, you wouldn’t be able to sell it (no matter what the price) in the US; why don’t we have similar regulation over financial instruments, which have proven to be very very dangerous?

Kenneth Rogoff, Professor of Public Policy

The financial sector is too big; as a sector it’s 3%-4% of the economy but in recent years it’s represented 30% of corporate profits, and because of all of the outsized pay packages, 10% of the wages in the country. The sector needs to shrink, which is what’s happening now. Why should we prop this sector up? What makes them more special than say the auto industry? This is especially true since we don’t know how much these investments are worth and the people that are going to *try* to price them for us are the same (unemployed) investment bankers who couldn’t do this before and created this whole mess in the first place.

Greg Mankiw, Professor of Economics

Falling housing prices, not bad underwriting, are the core of the problem; there was bad underwriting, for sure, but that isn’t all of it.

Everyone has known that the GSE (government-sponsored entities, i.e., Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae) were a problem but the politicians, on both sides of the aisle, didn’t wan to touch it. He served on a Bush-sponsored committee to review the GSEs and they made the same recommendations that a similar panel had made to Clinton but neither was acted upon.

As far as the presidential candidates’ responses, neither of them has done a stellar job of addressing the problem.

Robert Merton, University Professor and Nobel laureate

There has been a real wealth loss in the country, something like $16b to $18b.

There is a strong negative feedback loop going on in the financial markets now.

Need to figure out in the future how to reward innovation and take acceptable levels of risk without imploding the whole system.

(Coincidentally, I had written about Sanders Theatre a couple of weeks ago, so it was a real pleasure to be back there after fifteen years.  It’s such a beautiful space.)

See also Larry Summers’ piece in the Harvard alumni magazine

A Thick Description of the (Prospective) Next First Family

Nothing against Barbara Bush or anything, but I’m practically beside myself that I can use the occasion of an article on a presidential candidate’s mother to refer in context to Clifford Geertz.

Via Language Log, there’s a must-read profile in Time Magazine about Obama’s mother by Amanda Ripley:

Each of us lives a life of contradictory truths. We are not one thing or another. Barack Obama’s mother was at least a dozen things. S. Ann Soetoro was a teen mother who later got a Ph.D. in anthropology; a white woman from the Midwest who was more comfortable in Indonesia; a natural-born mother obsessed with her work; a romantic pragmatist, if such a thing is possible.

As Benjamin Zimmer writes in Language Log, after he gets the principal issue of pronouncing Obama’s sister’s name out of the way:

So Barack Obama has a half-sister versed in Indonesian figures of speech (regardless of Barack’s own proficiency in Indonesian). Not only that, he has another half-sister, on his father’s side, who is trained in Germanic languages and linguistics. According to Spiegel Online, Auma Obama studied at University of Heidelberg’s Neuphilologische Fakultät before continuing her graduate work at University of Bayreuth in the Interkulturelle Germanistik program. Her dissertation was on literary reflections of the concept of labor. It’s a fascinating extended clan, though you’d never know it watching the Democratic Convention’s genericized depiction of the Obamas as an “all-American family.”

Ripley’s piece, neatly staged in three acts, is broadly sympathetic but expertly done and full of insightful detail; a thick description, to use Geertz’s felicitous phrase.  And an appropriate one, too,  given that Obama’s mother was — like Geertz — an anthropologist of Indonesia who wrote a thousand page disseratation on ‘peasant blacksmithing,’ a classic thick description if there ever was one.

Fiddling during bubbles

Barry Ritholtz has a characteristically blunt assessment of the current financial crisis:

There is a choice to be made: Either we regulate the Banks, or leave it to the vagaries of the free markets to punish those who trade with, or place their assets in the wrong institutions. But for God’s sake, do not give us the worst of both worlds — do not allow banks the freedom to make horrific but preventable mistakes (i.e., only lending money to those who can pay it back), but then expect the taxpayers to foot the trillion dollar bill.

You can practically hear him pounding the table as he writes. He’s angry at Alan Greenspan for getting us into this mess, for politicians refusing to acknowledge reality, at regulators for failing in their obligations, and at much else besides.