Maybe it’s simply because I’ve been reading a book about complexity theory over the weekend, or maybe it’s because I just have a weird way of looking at things, but following the recent turn of events in Iraq (and especially of course Najaf), I can’t help noticing how something which in the grand scheme of things is apparently so small and relatively insignificant can be having such a huge global impact.

Indeed at one point it did really seem to be the case that the whole future of the world economy might have turned on the posession of a set of keys (obviously the Clavis Universalis, or could it be that all the delay is due to someone having a spare-set cut on the quiet: meantime the price of Brent crude spikes up and down).

Now obviously what is happening is not a fitting subject for frivolity, nor is it my explicit intention to open a further debate on Iraq in this ‘post-ette’. What I want to draw attention to is the extraordinary inter-connectedness of things. An apparently minor cleric, in what was previously a fairly obscure part of the planet, seems to be engaged in a stand-off with the president of the most powerful state, and while all this is taking place the future of all our livelihoods hangs in the balance. This is something new, isn’t it?

Surprisingly it seems what we are observing is extraordinarily consonant with some recent work in random graph theory carried out on a pretty abstract level by two US-based theorists, Strogatz and Watts, in the late ninetees. Summarising enormously, in their original work S&W started out with a model of a fairly ordered network and started adding connections between nodes at random. What they found was something which the scientific world in general found pretty interesting. The addition of each additional random connection was having minimal impact on the clustering component of the net, but it was having a huge impact on the number of degrees of separation between nodes: before random linking the measure had been up around 50, after tossing in a few links they found this had suddenly dropped to 7.

Now to present a rather abstract, but at one and the same time rather interesting, question: isn’t the process of globalisation rather akin to throwing an increasing number of random connections into what was a previously fairly ordered and structured system? Mightn’t this be a fruitful way of looking at things?

Morgan Stanley economist Andy Xie has long been arguing that the principal beneficiary of Greenspan’s monetary easing in the US has been the Shanghai housing market. I can’t recall what the final outcome of the investigation into the last foot and mouth outbreak in the UK actually was, but at one time there was the perfectly plausible speculation that it could have arisen via a sandwich purchased in Asia being thrown into the UK rubbish system. I myself have posted here on how the reduction of the water table level in China may impact on European bread prices, etc etc.

What we seem to need are some new measures of degrees of sensitivity.

And to return to the original point: perhaps the big news from Najaf isn’t who is (or isn’t) in possession of a given set of keys, nor the poor unfortunates who are being blown apart in the neighbouring streets. No, the big news is the impact that all this is having, in real time, on a much, much wider stage.

Update: now we do know that “all the world’s a stage”, but this news in from the Financial Times does only add to the heightened theatrical dimension of what in reality is a huge tragedy being played out before our eyes.

Negotiations to return the keys of the Imam Ali mausoleum to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most influential Shia cleric in Iraq, stalled over demands by Mr Sadr that a committee be formed to audit treasures held underneath the tomb that is at the centrepiece of the complex.

Mr Sadr’s spokesmen said on Monday that the debate was now about who would take part in the committee, claiming that they do not want to be accused of looting the goods held in the shrine. These are believed to include ancient carpets and precious jewellery.”

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About Edward Hugh

Edward 'the bonobo is a Catalan economist of British extraction. After being born, brought-up and educated in the United Kingdom, Edward subsequently settled in Barcelona where he has now lived for over 15 years. As a consequence Edward considers himself to be "Catalan by adoption". He has also to some extent been "adopted by Catalonia", since throughout the current economic crisis he has been a constant voice on TV, radio and in the press arguing in favor of the need for some kind of internal devaluation if Spain wants to stay inside the Euro. By inclination he is a macro economist, but his obsession with trying to understand the economic impact of demographic changes has often taken him far from home, off and away from the more tranquil and placid pastures of the dismal science, into the bracken and thicket of demography, anthropology, biology, sociology and systems theory. All of which has lead him to ask himself whether Thomas Wolfe was not in fact right when he asserted that the fact of the matter is "you can never go home again".

8 thoughts on “Keying-in

  1. I forget exactly who it was, maybe Sarkozy, but one senior French politician made a similar point when explaining France’s opposition to any war before the Iraq invasion. He called it the Law of Unintended Consequences and stated that, although he could not predict the results of any war, he could guarantee that the outcome would not be that expected by the coalition due to the complex manner things are interconnected.

  2. Healing Iraq, 2004-8-24, quote:

    Sistani seems to have given instructions to his office in Najaf not
    to accept the keys to the holy shrine unless a neutral committee inspects
    the contents of the shrine and an inventory is made to ensure nothing is
    missing from the treasury of the shrine.

    This treasury which is located inside a safe locked basement beneath the
    shrine contains historical artifacts, priceless manuscripts and a significant
    amount of gold and gems. These have been gifted and donated to the shrine
    by Shia from all over the world for centuries. No one has ever dared touch
    that treasury except the family that holds the keys to the shrine. Radhwan
    Al-Rufai’i was forced to give over the keys to one of Sadr’s aides last April.
    Al-Rufai’i had taken over the responsibilities of the shrine after his cousin
    Haider Al-Kelidar who was murdered with Abdul Majid Al-Khoe’i on 10 April 2003
    by Sadr’s followers.

    Sistani’s office has been placing these obstacles on Sadr in response to
    rumours that a large part of the treasury has been stolen and possibly smuggled
    to Iran. If true, Sadr would be in a very bad position since he was practically
    responsible for the shrine’s contents and would also expose him as the gangster
    he is.


  3. Postholes, 2004-8-18, quote:

    First, the reaction against American troops continuing the fray is merely
    a part of a reaction against all foreign adventurism here. A quote: “We tell
    them all: why are you coming here to fight Americans? Go fight them in your
    own country. This is our country. Everyone should just go home. Do not come
    here and kill us because you wish to kill Americans.” But, above that, beyond
    that, is a resurrection of fear regarding Iran and Hezbollah. Here, the “first”
    Gulf War refers to the Iran-Iraq war — and it is still etched in memory. There?s
    a strong conviction that Iranian factions are sponsoring a good deal of the
    violence. Shia from Basra, formerly sympathetic to Shia from Iran, now see the
    latter as spoilers who wish only to take over control of holy sites in Iraq.
    Another quote: “They care nothing for this country. It is not their country.
    They wish only to push us aside and take what they want. But this is my country,
    not theirs. It is my country first. That comes before any religion.”


  4. Iraqi American, 2004-8-13, quote:

    So someone asked General Kassem Suleiman the Iranian who is in charge of
    this mission, why does Iran want Iraq to go into chaos? His response was it
    is better for Iran’s long run to deal with chaotic Iraq than dealing with
    a democratic Iraq controlled by America. So the second question was how are you
    doing that and his response was, we are going to Arm Muqtada with weapon and
    men and let them fight all they want. Today listening to Iraqi officials from
    Najaf, they have arrested 1200 men from Al-Mahdi Army in the last 5 days of
    fighting, none of them were Iraqis nor do they speak Arabic. That is a big
    number for a city like Najaf.


  5. Salam Pax, 2004-8-24, quote:

    At the same time Moqtada al-Sadr, son of a much respected religious figure
    who assumed leadership of what is known as the militant Hawza, decided to
    up the ante. Whether he is being influenced and supported by a foreign country
    (the Allawi government points an accusing finger at Iran) or not, he and
    his militia (the Mahdi Army) have managed to hijack Iraqi politics. The last
    weeks have been about him, it seems we have forgotten all talk about developing
    a working democratic model here in Iraq and all we think about is how to keep
    the box of explosives on which Moqtada sits from erupting.

    What I have been trying to do is to take a closer look at the people who
    support him and are prepared to fight for him, the Mahdi Army. Many of whom
    come from the disadvantaged and poor Shia areas in Iraq. You won’t find any
    Moqtada supporters in Najaf or Karbala, where the Shia “aristocracy” are. But
    in the poor southern cities like Amara and Nasiriyah and the huge slum in
    Baghdad known now as Sadr city. In Najaf and in Sadr City meeting the men who
    form the Mahdi Army has made me reconsider my view of them, they are simple
    people, always very friendly and welcoming. It is their leaders who worry me.

    Those people never had hope for a better future, now they see someone who
    has lived among them championing their cause. They see a hand extended which
    they have not seen by the Iraqi government. What I fear they don’t see is
    how Moqtada al-Sadr and the people he listens to are using those masses in
    a dangerous political game which might disrupt the future for all Iraqis.


    At one point two idiots stood right in the middle of an intersection
    shaking hands a chatting totally oblivious to the american sniper looking
    out one of the windows until he got really sick of them and shouted “Yo! is
    this going to take much longer”


  6. Hmmm lots of quotes but no arguments…

    Maybe this is pointing out the obvious but a group of bloggers do NOT give a cross section of any society. Neither Iraq nor European, Asian or American. They give personal viewpoints and comments on events. Add to that the fact the danger of group bias (we only tend to visit and read sites that confirm to our personal preferences). The lesson is, we don’t know jack about Iraqi society. A few ME experts like Juan Cole excepted. Relying on a couple of personal blogs isn’t going to change that. Do not make the mistake of quoting a couple blogs and supposing they represent society as a whole.

    Are bloggers informative? Yes, some are. Representative? No, they only represent themselves!

    Maybe’s there’s a complexity theorem hidden here.

  7. They speak english and can afford internet. That doesn’t sounds representative of Iraqi society

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