Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Bailing out of 2008

From Dave Barry's review of the year that 2008 was:

As world financial markets collapse like fraternity pledges at a keg party and banks fail around the world, the International Monetary Fund implements an emergency program under which anybody who opens a checking account anywhere on earth gets a free developing nation. But it is not enough; the financial system is in utter chaos. At one point a teenage girl in Worcester, Mass., attempts to withdraw $25 from an ATM and winds up acquiring Wells Fargo. ....

The stock market plummets farther as investors realize that the only thing that had been keeping the economy afloat was the millions of dollars spent daily on TV commercials for presidential candidates explaining how they would fix the economy. As it becomes increasingly clear that the federal government's plan of giving hundreds of billions of dollars to dysfunctional companies has not fixed the problem, the government comes up with a bold new plan: give more hundreds of billions of dollars to dysfunctional companies. Soon the government is in a bailout frenzy, handing out money left and right, at one point accidentally giving $14 billion to a man delivering a Domino's pizza to the Treasury building.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

America is India?

American politics, which has always involved "dynasties", patronage, and backroom dealings are looking more and more like India's politics and politicians.  And this is not something to be proud about!

When I was a kid, I remember elected politicians switching parties like crazy depending on who offered a better deal.  And everybody knew that such deals were going on.  One politician was referred to as "aaya ram, gaya ram" (aaya meaning to come, and gaya means to leave--characterizing how the politician, ram, entered and left parties.  Hilarious it was to some extent, more so when we did not have television to entertain us ....

The Economist has a neat statistic about India:
The country’s politicians are mostly an unsavoury lot. Of the 522 members of India’s current parliament, 120 are facing criminal charges; around 40 of these are accused of serious crimes, including murder and rape. Most Indian politicians are presumed to be corrupt, which is less surprising. In India’s poor and fractious society patronage politics is inevitable. But Indian politics has got much muckier in recent years because of two factors: the rise of regional and caste-based parties, nakedly dedicated to delivering patronage; and the mutinous coalitions this has led to.
It is disheartening that the 230+year old American democracy is not that different.  In the last few weeks alone we have had everything from a long-time senator found guilty, to the latest nutcase "Senategate" in Illinois.  Not much of a role model for many of the African countries struggling to establish democratic institutions ....

More on the Illinois "Senategate"

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

F*&k the political dynasty system

I hope-perhaps against hope--that the Illinois "Senategate" controversy will finally wake people up to the reality of dynasties in American politics and how it further ruins democracy.
  • Illinois: Obama's seat might go to Jesse Jackson Jr., whose entry into politics was made possible only because of his name.

  • New York: Clinton's seat is being sought by Caroline Kennedy, whose only political connection is the Kennedy name. Meanwhile Andrew Cuomo can't make up his mind whether to go for the governor office or this senate vacancy.

  • Delaware: Biden's seat will be held by his former aide, until Biden's son is ready two years down the road.

  • Florida: Jeb Bush is already making noise about jumping into the Senate race.
This is a list looking into the future. Of course, the past includes names like Bush, Gore, Dole, Murkowski ..... it is a long list

I am tired of this game, as you can tell from the "F*&k" in the title :-)

The "Senategate" in the Land of Corruption, er, Lincoln

More to add on the coming confusion and disunity among Democrats .... Spiked's Sean Collins has this to throw in:
Only about four weeks after the election, and the liberal-left was now feeling a new range of emotions, from confusion to disillusion to who knows what, trying to work out how it could be that their hero could have selected such centrist and even right-wing figures to the leading advisory roles in his administration – with not a ‘progressive’ in sight. To make it even more galling, these picks were being widely referred to as ‘the best and brightest’ (what, were they implying that progressives are neither?).
Ahem, maybe a tad below the belt on progressives not being in the club of "the best and the brightest" .... but, good point. And then later he writes:
Sceptical liberals could at least console themselves that Obama would bring needed ‘change’ from the evil Bush administration – but wait, now they couldn’t even say that! The liberal-left not only has to deal with all the Clinton re-treads; they also have to face the fact that there will be holdovers from the Bush regime in critical roles. Robert Gates, the executor of the Iraq war, will stay on as defence secretary. And the top economic position of treasury secretary goes to Timothy Geithner, who was once registered as a Republican and now calls himself independent, and who has already been working closely with the Bush administration secretary, Henry Paulson, on the bailout package. Obama even reached back to the Reagan years and chose 81-year-old Paul Volcker to be an economic adviser (when Obama said he wanted experience, I guess that included finding someone who actually lived during the Great Depression).
Should something bizarre come out of the Illinois governor scandal--shall we call it "senategate?"--that taints even a third-stringer in the Obama camp, well, it will be quite a three-ring-circus! Bill Clinton had his real estate deals investigated ad nauseam--remember Whitewater? We now have the shadow of Tony Rezko ..... politics in any country is one hell of a spectator sport--if only it didn't have serious implications!

Bailout for the auto manufacturers

Like most Americans, I too am conflicted over how we ought to deal with the crisis with the three automobile manufacturers—Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler.

This is not an abstract public policy issue for me by any means. After all, the three vehicles that our family currently owns are from each one of these manufacturers—Ford Focus, Saturn Vue, and Jeep Cherokee. We have also owned a Ford Taurus and a Saturn station-wagon in the past. The only “non-American” vehicle we have ever had was a Nissan Sentra.

It is not that we were implementing a “buy American” policy at home. It just so happens that the vehicles we bought met our preferences and budget constraints. Earlier today, when I took my Saturn Vue to the dealership for the regular oil change, I began to wonder whether the brand will even exist anymore. News reports suggest that General Motors is planning to sell the division, or merge it with another division. Even worse is the possibility that Saturn might be completely shuttered down.

On the one hand, the public policy person in me prefers inefficient economic enterprises to fade away without government intervention. I think about PanAm, which symbolized air travel when I was a kid. It has been almost two decades since PanAm closed down when it could not survive in a highly competitive global travel industry. It is the law of the jungle, so to say, where inefficient businesses lose out to efficient ones. In order to preempt a PanAm-like story, the auto manufacturers should have been watchful, and could have avoided the strategic errors they made, especially during the cash-flush decade from the mid-1990s when SUVs and minivans delivered billions of profits.

But, on the other hand, I recognize that government actively intervenes in practically every aspect of our economy. Heck, even my home is partly underwritten by the government, which permits us to write-off the interest paid on the mortgage loan. Thus, if many other industries can be subsidized or bailed out, well, why not help out Saturn and its loyal and committed employees? It is a tough question that can be an easy one only for dogmatic ideologues.

Even as policymakers try to figure out the current auto industry crisis, we might want to understand a few longer term trends as well. “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” was a holiday season movie two decades ago; these same American manufacturing industries listed in the title have also been in decline. Trains, for all purposes, have been relegated to history. The automobile industry is in a pickle—some might argue that it has been in denial since the energy crisis in the 1970s.

And not everything is well with the aviation industry either—both in the manufacturing of planes, and in passenger transportation. Boeing was the undisputed champ in its field, perhaps even more powerfully than the American “Big Three” auto manufacturers ever were. Slowly but steadily Boeing has been losing its market share to other aircraft manufacturers. Twenty years ago, in 1988, Airbus had barely 16 percent of the market and now it is nearly on par with Boeing in terms of the value of aircrafts delivered.

Meanwhile, Brazil and Canada have become active in the manufacturing of short-haul jets. China is the latest entry into this—last month, the Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China announced the sale of five of its ARJ21s (Advanced Regional Jets for the 21st Century) to General Electric’s aircraft leasing division, with an option for 20 additional aircrafts. The ARJ21 and other larger jets to be manufactured by CACC by 2020 are essentially China’s effort to crack the aircraft market dominated by Boeing and Airbus.

Over the last few years, we have come to realize that anything we do can be done cheaper in China. This means that, if we don’t watch out, here in the Pacific Northwest we could be worrying about Boeing twenty years from now, similar to the worries over General Motors today.

Therefore, even as we try to mitigate the woes of the auto industry, and even as the manufacturers begin to articulate a long-term survival strategy, I hope we will learn one important lesson—global economic competition is real, and will only get more intense than ever before. If we don’t get that lesson, another bottom line awaits us: history does repeat.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Sweatshop labor in Bangladesh

Yet another fantastic report from the Onion

New Portable Sewing Machine Lets Sweatshop Employees Work On The Go

Be thankful for our democracy

To a large extent, the campaign phone calls and election pamphlets are indicators that there is still a strong pulse in the democracy. They force us to recognize the issues, how much ever trivial or profound they rate in our individual political meters, and decide on a yea or nay. If we did not have those dedicated people, elections and democracy could morph into a political equivalent of a tree falling in the forest and nobody being there to hear it.

Read the entire piece here

The Chinese are coming, The Chinese are coming

Unless you are totally into movies, it is most likely that you haven't heard of a movie called 'The Russians are coming, The Russians are coming'. It came at the heights (depths?) of the Cold War--in 1966. A great comedy, and a great picture at the same time--not merely a slapstick one.

According to this LA Times story, it is literal--the Chinese are coming. And apparently they are coming to buy homes, because prices have dropped so much. It is almost like somebody went to China and advertised a huge clearance sale in California and elsewhere :-)

An excerpt from the Times piece:

The Chinese do have a lot of cash to spend. The central government holds the biggest stockpile of foreign reserves in the world, nearly $2 trillion, most of it in dollars. And the Boston Consulting Group estimates that there were more than 391,000 millionaire households in mainland China last year, up from 310,000 reported the previous year.
[Home] prices in the U.S. have fallen more sharply than in China, and many Chinese consider the American market highly alluring as a place to invest and live because of the United States' developed economy.

The purchasing tours in the U.S. grew out of similar trips by well-heeled Chinese back home.

Investors from Wenzhou and other entrepreneurial hot spots were known for chartering buses to visit such cities as Shanghai to shop for apartments. Now some of them are signing up with outfits like, the real estate website that is sponsoring the home-buying trip next month from Beijing to California and Nevada."

Monday, December 08, 2008

Putting two and two together .... hmmm...

Earlier this morning, I read in the Chronicle of Higher Education that there has been a sudden decrease in the number of students who have taken the GRE--when an increase was expected.
The nonprofit organization that administers the Graduate Record Examinations is projecting that the number of tests given this year will dip—despite a slowing economy, which typically pushes people into graduate school.

And then, later in the day I read another news item that:
World Education Services, one of the largest foreign-credential evaluators for American and Canadian universities, has revised its assessment of India’s three-year undergraduate degrees, putting those rated A or higher by a national accreditor on par with American undergraduate programs. Until now, students in India needed to complete 16 years of academic work to be eligible for admission to graduate programs in the United States.
The move could sharply increase the already-high number of Indian students who apply to American universities.

I realize that there is zero chance for any conspiracy here. But, it is too damn juicy not to spin the stories as: universities figured out that a neat way to increase graduate student enrolment in the US is to accept India's three-year undergrad programs as being on par with the four-year programs here in the US. And thus the graduate school money-making schemes can continue on :-)

Happy birthday, mouse!

Those of us old enough to remember the days of strange keyboard commands in WordPerfect, also might remember well how we thought the mouse and GUI were the greatest inventions ever. That mouse is now 40 years old--I didn't know that it pre-dated the Mac, which is where I used a mouse for the first time. The BBC:
On 9 December 1968 hi-tech visionary Douglas Engelbart first used one to demonstrate novel ways of working with computers.
The first mouse that Dr Engelbart used in the demo at the Fall Joint Computer Conference (FJCC) was made of wood and had one button

Thank you, Dr. Engelbart.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Highly educated does not mean best managers

Way back on May 2nd, in response to a colleague's comments, I emailed him that highly educated people don't necessarily make good executives--in the private or public sector. In that email, I wrote:
"W" is double Ivy-League, and pretty much everyone of his cabinet members is highly educated. Ken Lay was a phd in econ. Only Karl Rove does not have a formal college degree! ..... Robert "Vietnam" McNamara was a high IQ genious, with the best credentials.
In the US, and in many other countries, the educated have created as much (or more) hassles as the not-formally-educated. one of the best leaders we had in the state where I grew up in India was functionally illiterate ....
I am increasingly tending towards an understanding that higher education is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for governance, politics, civics ....
Well, this is the same idea that Frank Rich discusses in his column, whose title says it all:
"The brightest are not always the best"

Friday, December 05, 2008

The most dangerous place?

(A gunman walks through the Chatrapathi Sivaji Terminal railway station in Mumbai, India, Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2008. (AP Photo/Mumbai Mirror, Sebastian D'souza.  Click here for a collection of photographs, including this one)

A colleague asked me whether my friends and family were okay, in the context of the recent terrorism nightmare in India.  I told her that everybody was fine, and then added that it does not make the incident any less of a human tragedy with immense geopolitical implications.

I have been to Bombay only once.  Yes, I continue to refer to the city as Bombay—as my own protest against the explicitly communal and political calculations that went into the renaming that was led by the right-wing Hindu nationalist party, Shiv Sena.  In 1995, Shiv Sena won the elections in the state of Maharashtra, where Bombay is located, and forced the name change to Mumbai, much to the displeasure of many in the city and the rest of the country too. 


During that visit, when the city was officially only Bombay, I was completely overwhelmed by the crowds at Victoria Terminus, which also has undergone a name change to Chatrapati Shivaji Terminus.  At this railway station, terrorists killed 56 and injured 98 others. 


In fact, if there is one thing I remember about Bombay after all these years, it is how crowded it was.  Interestingly enough, despite all that crowd and my phobia for getting trapped in one, I don’t think I ever felt unsafe.  In contrast, I was a lot more worried about my safety when I was a graduate student in Los Angeles where, to my horror, a student was mugged and shot just a few steps away from the university-owned apartment complex.


Over the recent years, many Indian cities, including Bombay, have been easy targets for militants.  The first major organized attack occurred on December 13, 2001—a short three months after our own 9/11—when five terrorists, who were later identified as Pakistani nationals, blazed their way through India’s parliament building.   


There is a Pakistani dimension in the latest terrorist attack too.  Emerging details indicate that the terrorists were not “home grown” but might have been affiliated with, or trained by, a militant group called Lashkar-e-Taiba, often abbreviated as LeT, which was allegedly involved with the attack on the parliament building.  Driving India’s security forces out of the much contested Kashmir is LeT’s primary goal, but apparently it operates far away from Kashmir also. 


LeT was overtly founded by Pakistan’s intelligence agency, but in a short period of time the Pakistani government lost control of its own creation. Soon after 9/11, the US government added LeT to its list of terrorist organizations, and later the group was banned in Pakistan as well.


In these pages, I have expressed my concerns over Pakistan.  Its wild west is pretty much a country all to itself, over which the federal government rarely has any control.  This western province provides a safe haven to the Afghan Taliban and to al-Qaeda.  At the other end, Pakistan has been involved in a long struggle with India over Kashmir.  In the southern part lies Karachi, which is Pakistan’s largest city with over twelve million people, and with all kinds of problems of its own.  It was here that Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter, was kidnapped and murdered. 


I have, therefore, always favored words and actions that will not provoke any of the many explosive issues.  With this latest terrorist act inBombay, I am worried that anti-Pakistan and anti-Muslim sentiments in India can easily be stoked by irresponsible demagogues, particularly given that elections at the federal level, and in many states too, are round the corner.  Heated rhetoric can easily trigger the two nuclear-armed countries to amass their militaries along their respective borders.  Neither the subcontinent, nor the rest of the planet, can afford even a “traditional” war between these two countries, let alone a nuclear war.


I was, therefore, relieved to read news reports that Secretary Condoleezza Rice changed her plans and rushed to urge India’s leaders to exercise care and restraint.  The current administration, like the previous ones, did not pay sufficient attention to India-Pakistan problems.  I sincerely hope that the incoming president would place a much higher level of importance on this—one of the most dangerous geopolitical problems in the world.

Restructuring the economy .... or else ...?

Brad DeLong notes that the Obama administration has no choice but to remake five major industries:
  • Autos
  • Housing finance
  • High finance
  • Energy
  • And the big one—health care
Not much to disagree there.  But, boy will every one of these be controversial.  One misstep, and it will be Bill Clinton's healthcare saga all over again.  And, I bet we will see a lot more of ads like the notorious Harry and Louise ads from then ....  

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Al Franken heading to ...?

The Georgia senate election is finally over. The result shouldn't surprise anyone who watched the Daily Show :-) That leaves Al Franken in Minnesota as the only remaining Democratic contender still waiting for the results. I am going to leave it up to Jon Stewart to predict the outcome ....

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Bombay terror attacks explained

Sunday, November 30, 2008

These damned terrorists!

The Islamist extremism nurtured by a succession of military rulers of Pakistan has now come to haunt its well-intentioned but lamentably weak elected civilian government. The bombing of Islamabad’s Marriott Hotel proved that Frankenstein’s monster is now truly out of that government’s control. The militancy once sponsored by its predecessors now threatens to abort Pakistan’s sputtering democracy and seeks to engulf India in its flames.
That was Sashi Tharoor.

I have blogged enough about Pakistan. It is terrible that we can spot all the flashing red signs, but are simply unable to stop innocents being killed in horrible terrorist acts.

Very sad.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

It is a wild world!

Holding together the coalition called the Democrats

I am not sure if even the Onion could have offered a more satirical and comical development than what Senator Joe Lieberman is.
  • The guy was a vice-presidential candidate of one party, and went on to lose the election (well, we won't get into the arguments on the (s)election);
  • then a couple of years later fails to emerge as the party's candidate for his own Senate seat;
  • then runs opposing the Democratic candidate and wins;
  • and then caucuses with the Senate Democrats giving them the threadbare majority;
  • then goes all out campaigning for the Republican candidate for the presidency while dissing his own party's candidate.
  • And, yet, doesn't get kicked out of his powerful committee chairmanship.
To use Yakov Smirnoff's line, What a country!

Well, the progressive-left is already beginning to shed some of its infatuation for Obama. Not just because of Lieberman, whose continuation as the committee chair Obama supported. But, about his cabinet picks. In The Nation, its editor, Katrina vanden Heuvel, notes that
some interesting conversations and debates underway at (see especially Chris Hayes at Capitolism, "Left Out") and in the progressive blogosphere (see Glenn Greenwald, Jane Hamsher, Digby and David Sirota about why Obama has so few progressives among his cabinet picks.)
I agree with her: "It's worth checking them out"

Will be interesting to see how long the glue will hold all these competing interests together. I am guessing it won't be for long.

Myron Rolle: A role model student-athlete

What an awesome news about the fantastic achievements of this guy from Florida State: to have been named a Rhodes Scholar, and also projected as an early-round NFL draft pick. Simply outstanding.

According to the Chronicle,

Mr. Rolle (pronounced "roll") won the prestigious scholarship, which sends 32 American students each year to the University of Oxford, and jetted to the game on a Florida State booster's private plane. Although there was no timeout, no announcement echoing across the stadium, ESPN cut away from the action to Mr. Rolle's arrival in its national broadcast of the game.

Florida State's cheerleaders met him at the locker room door, as did his parents, whom he hugged. In the stands, Seminoles fans chanted "MY-ron RO-ole" and waved signs: "Congratulations, Mr. Rolle" and "All Rhodes Lead to Rolle."

My favorite part of that news item was this: after the final interview, and after he was informed that he won the scholarship, Rolle had to rush to the football game at Maryland. "a University of Alabama at Birmingham police escort, using full lights and sirens—raced him to the airport and onto the tarmac." He deserved every bit of that royal treatment :-)

Monday, November 24, 2008

We have a vibrant auto industry

The US has one of the most vibrant, dynamic, and efficient automobile industries in the world. It produces several million cars, trucks, and SUVs per year, employing (in 2006) 402,800 Americans at an average salary of $63,358. That’s vehicle assembly alone; the rest of the supply chain employs even more people and generates more income. It’s an industry to be proud of. Its products are among the best in the world. Their names are Toyota, Honda, Nissan, BMW, Mercedes, Hyundai, Mazda, Mitsubishi, and Subaru.

A neat reminder from Peter Klein.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

How to solve a problem like Pakistan? :-(

I have blogged a lot about Pakistan, and also authored op-ed pieces in the Register Guard expressing my worries about that country. When candidate Obama went all out hawkish and stated that he will unilaterally go into Pakistan, I was sure that was the worst thing to do. Well, Nicholas Kristof has a much better suggestion for Obama--"Mr. Obama should make his first presidential trip to Pakistan — and stop at a DIL school to remind Pakistan’s army and elites that their greatest enemy isn’t India but illiteracy. "

But, that bottomline is deceptive--Kristof is rightly worried about how much the nuclear armed pakistan is close to failing as a state. It is a mandatory reading for anybody remotely interested in the welfare of the planet. No, I am not exaggerating: Pakistan's collapse can unleash demons that can be beyond our wildest imaginations. Kristof notes:
I’ve never found Pakistanis so gloomy. Some worry that militants, nurtured by illiteracy and a failed education system, will overrun the country or that the nation will break apart. I’m not quite that pessimistic, but it’s very likely that the next major terror attack in the West is being planned by extremists here in Pakistan.

Later on, Kristof comments on two ministers in the current government:
One new cabinet member, Israr Ullah Zehri, defended the torture-murder of five women and girls who were buried alive (three girls wanted to choose their own husbands, and two women tried to protect them). “These are centuries-old traditions, and I will continue to defend them,” Mr. Zehri said of the practice of burying independent-minded girls alive.
Then there is Pakistan’s new education minister, Mir Hazar Khan Bijarani. Last year, the Supreme Court ordered him arrested for allegedly heading a local council that decided to solve a feud by taking five little girls and marrying them to men in an enemy clan. The girls were between the ages of 2 and 5, according to Samar Minallah, a Pakistani anthropologist who investigated the case (Mr. Bijarani has denied involvement).

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

The Onion on Bush's legacy

If I had to list some good things that the internet made possible, The Onion will be in my top-ten. Maybe even in the top-three. A couple of days ago, the Washington Post had a story on how the people at the Onion put together the fantastic stories and videos and everything else. It was neat.

I find the Onion to be absolutely wonderful because their satire is so good with respect to actual content. They seem to be in excellent command of the real-issues, which they spin so well into a satire. To prove my point, here, in its entirety, is what the Onion foretold about Bush's presidency--back on January 17, 2001, in time for his first inauguration:

Bush: 'Our Long National Nightmare Of Peace And Prosperity Is Finally Over'
January 17, 2001 Issue 37•01

WASHINGTON, DC–Mere days from assuming the presidency and closing the door on eight years of Bill Clinton, president-elect George W. Bush assured the nation in a televised address Tuesday that "our long national nightmare of peace and prosperity is finally over."

"My fellow Americans," Bush said, "at long last, we have reached the end of the dark period in American history that will come to be known as the Clinton Era, eight long years characterized by unprecedented economic expansion, a sharp decrease in crime, and sustained peace overseas. The time has come to put all of that behind us."

Bush swore to do "everything in [his] power" to undo the damage wrought by Clinton's two terms in office, including selling off the national parks to developers, going into massive debt to develop expensive and impractical weapons technologies, and passing sweeping budget cuts that drive the mentally ill out of hospitals and onto the street.

During the 40-minute speech, Bush also promised to bring an end to the severe war drought that plagued the nation under Clinton, assuring citizens that the U.S. will engage in at least one Gulf War-level armed conflict in the next four years.

"You better believe we're going to mix it up with somebody at some point during my administration," said Bush, who plans a 250 percent boost in military spending. "Unlike my predecessor, I am fully committed to putting soldiers in battle situations. Otherwise, what is the point of even having a military?"

On the economic side, Bush vowed to bring back economic stagnation by implementing substantial tax cuts, which would lead to a recession, which would necessitate a tax hike, which would lead to a drop in consumer spending, which would lead to layoffs, which would deepen the recession even further.

Wall Street responded strongly to the Bush speech, with the Dow Jones industrial fluctuating wildly before closing at an 18-month low. The NASDAQ composite index, rattled by a gloomy outlook for tech stocks in 2001, also fell sharply, losing 4.4 percent of its total value between 3 p.m. and the closing bell.

Asked for comment about the cooling technology sector, Bush said: "That's hardly my area of expertise."

Turning to the subject of the environment, Bush said he will do whatever it takes to undo the tremendous damage not done by the Clinton Administration to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He assured citizens that he will follow through on his campaign promise to open the 1.5 million acre refuge's coastal plain to oil drilling. As a sign of his commitment to bringing about a change in the environment, he pointed to his choice of Gale Norton for Secretary of the Interior. Norton, Bush noted, has "extensive experience" fighting environmental causes, working as a lobbyist for lead-paint manufacturers and as an attorney for loggers and miners, in addition to suing the EPA to overturn clean-air standards.

Bush had equally high praise for Attorney General nominee John Ashcroft, whom he praised as "a tireless champion in the battle to protect a woman's right to give birth."

"Soon, with John Ashcroft's help, we will move out of the Dark Ages and into a more enlightened time when a woman will be free to think long and hard before trying to fight her way past throngs of protesters blocking her entrance to an abortion clinic," Bush said. "We as a nation can look forward to lots and lots of babies."

Continued Bush: "John Ashcroft will be invaluable in healing the terrible wedge President Clinton drove between church and state."

The speech was met with overwhelming approval from Republican leaders.

"Finally, the horrific misrule of the Democrats has been brought to a close," House Majority Leader Dennis Hastert (R-IL) told reporters. "Under Bush, we can all look forward to military aggression, deregulation of dangerous, greedy industries, and the defunding of vital domestic social-service programs upon which millions depend. Mercifully, we can now say goodbye to the awful nightmare that was Clinton's America."

"For years, I tirelessly preached the message that Clinton must be stopped," conservative talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh said. "And yet, in 1996, the American public failed to heed my urgent warnings, re-electing Clinton despite the fact that the nation was prosperous and at peace under his regime. But now, thank God, that's all done with. Once again, we will enjoy mounting debt, jingoism, nuclear paranoia, mass deficit, and a massive military build-up."

An overwhelming 49.9 percent of Americans responded enthusiastically to the Bush speech.

"After eight years of relatively sane fiscal policy under the Democrats, we have reached a point where, just a few weeks ago, President Clinton said that the national debt could be paid off by as early as 2012," Rahway, NJ, machinist and father of three Bud Crandall said. "That's not the kind of world I want my children to grow up in."

"You have no idea what it's like to be black and enfranchised," said Marlon Hastings, one of thousands of Miami-Dade County residents whose votes were not counted in the 2000 presidential election. "George W. Bush understands the pain of enfranchisement, and ever since Election Day, he has fought tirelessly to make sure it never happens to my people again."

Bush concluded his speech on a note of healing and redemption.

"We as a people must stand united, banding together to tear this nation in two," Bush said. "Much work lies ahead of us: The gap between the rich and the poor may be wide, be there's much more widening left to do. We must squander our nation's hard-won budget surplus on tax breaks for the wealthiest 15 percent. And, on the foreign front, we must find an enemy and defeat it."

"The insanity is over," Bush said. "After a long, dark night of peace and stability, the sun is finally rising again over America. We look forward to a bright new dawn not seen since the glory days of my dad."

Friday, November 21, 2008

Spending, savings, and the American economy

Remember Congo?

What does my blog say about my personality?

The Mechanics
The independent and problem-solving type. They are especially attuned to the demands of the moment are masters of responding to challenges that arise spontaneously. They generally prefer to think things out for themselves and often avoid inter-personal conflicts. The Mechanics enjoy working together with other independent and highly skilled people and often like seek fun and action both in their work and personal life. They enjoy adventure and risk such as in driving race cars or working as policemen and firefighters.
That was the result from Typealyzer (which I found from Greg Mankiw's blog.) Other than the last sentence about adventure, race cars and firefighting, I suppose the pattern analysis is not that far off the mark. Soon, some computer can start blogging like me, pretending to be me? That will be fascinating.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

GM's imminent death. And then Ford and Chrysler.

I feel terrible for the familes of people who work for the Big2.5, but to a large extent the companies could have averted most of the crisis, if only they had planned ahead. Three colleagues and I had some spirited discussions on this--hey, if elected officials are qualified to comment on this, well, how much worse our discussions can be off-the-mark? :-) Of the four of us, one was in favor, two seemed to be ambivalent, and one was opposed. I think this vote-split reflects well the mood of the country and the Congress too.

Anyway, back to the planning ahead. Years ago, California, which was concerned about air quality, the state initiated a Zero Emissions Vehicle (ZEV) program. The auto industry attacked it from the start. Here is a summary of the ZEV program. The right-wing Republicans and free-marketeers also attacked it--they preferred to arbitrate pollution through carbon-trading and other so-called-market mechanisms. Well, the ZEV continued to morph under the relentless attacks and lawsuits.

And now GM cries because it focused on its short-term profits--selling SUVs and pickups--when now the market favors fuel-efficient cars and trucks. Hey, they could have developed them in the 20 years, like how Honda and Toyota did.

The worst economic crisis in my lifetime

Just when I think it couldn't get any uglier, well, I am shocked at how much more worse things are. A month ago, when Warren Buffett said it was a good time to buy stocks, the DJ was at 8852. Since then, well, even Buffett's op-ed couldn't lift up the spirits, and the index is now below 8000--actually a tad below 7800 as I am writing this.
Unemployment is shooting up. Here in Oregon, the nightmare scenarios of the next two to three years should keep public officials busy 24x7.
GM will run out of cash before the next Congress and administration is sworn in.

It is in such situations, more than during the normal ones, I can easily demonstrate how in academia we tradeoff higher incomes in favor of job security and guranteed salaries. I just can't imagine how families adjust when they lose jobs. Simply unimaginable.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Let the auto companies fade out

This is a photo of one of the most expensive parking lots on the planet. Cars being brought in containers from Germany and other countries, off-loaded and parked in lots because there is no dealership that wants them, says the LA Times.
But, that is not even as fascinating as another one in that same story--the sharp drop in our leading exports through California: recycled cardboard and paper products.
This material typically goes to China, where it is used to make boxes for new electronics and other products that are sent back to the United States. But Chinese factories reacting to sharply falling demand are slowing production, so they need less cardboard. Tons of paper are piling up recycling businesses around the port, the detritus of economies on hold.
My students always find it hilarious that containers from China get here loaded with electronic gadgets, and all kinds of crap we don't need, and we send back in those containers scrap metal and paper as our exports. What is wrong with this picture, eh!

Monday, November 17, 2008

Putin 'wanted to hang Saakashvili by the balls'

What a day for the headline writers at the Times (of London, not NY!)

With Russian tanks only 30 miles from Tbilisi on August 12, Mr Sarkozy told Mr Putin that the world would not accept the overthrow of Georgia’s Government. According to Mr Levitte, the Russian seemed unconcerned by international reaction. “I am going to hang Saakashvili by the balls,” Mr Putin declared.

Mr Sarkozy thought he had misheard. “Hang him?” — he asked. “Why not?” Mr Putin replied. “The Americans hanged Saddam Hussein.”

Mr Sarkozy, using the familiar tu, tried to reason with him: “Yes but do you want to end up like [President] Bush?” Mr Putin was briefly lost for words, then said: “Ah —
you have scored a point there.”
Not only is this funny and bizarre and horrible all at the same time, it is a really telling statement when Vlad "the impaler" Putin thinks that Bush is the ultimate yardstick for how low a world leader can go! What a bunch of global leaders we have now.

I am hoping that I won't be nabbed by an extra-terrestrial who might direct me to "take me to your leader" :-)

Hail a cab, explore the world

Whether I travel for work or pleasure, whether I go to cities in the United States or abroad, I find it difficult not to engage in one activity: talking with cab drivers about global economics and politics.

It was the night after the elections when I flagged a cab at the airport in Phoenix to head to the hotel and conference venue. I resisted the temptation to ask the driver if he was from Ethiopia, because once before in a different city I asked a driver that same thing. The driver informed me that he hailed from Eritrea, and his brusque tone indicated that he did not quite appreciate my question.

The small country of Eritrea became independent from Ethiopia after a 30-year war, and border and ethnic tensions persist. So it was understandable that my Eritrean driver felt a tad offended when I asked him if he was Ethiopian.

Having learned from my mistakes, which is something my wife says I don’t do enough, this time I asked the cab driver if he was from somewhere in East Africa. Yes indeed — he was from Somalia.

That was all I needed to engage him in a conversation about Somalia and his take on the United States.

I asked him about a news item from the previous day about reports of a female who had been stoned to death. According to news reports and Amnesty International, the female was a 13-year-old rape victim. According to a few Somalis, she was a 23-year old woman who had confessed to adultery. I asked the cab driver for his views.

The driver was convinced that the victim was not a 13-year-old, but a 23-year-old. And that it was not rape, but adultery. And, finally, it was not a case that was initiated by society, but was triggered by her admission of guilt — confession. The cab driver’s logic was that people had no choice in the matter because her confession automatically warranted the punishment.

When I suggested that stoning somebody to death was harsh and cruel, well, he did not think so. His response was strange to me, given that this conversation was happening in the United States, and more so in Arizona, which is known for its libertarian tendencies.

The item and the conversation with the cabbie was a refreshing reminder of the rule of law that we have in this country. While a sexual relationship outside of marriage might be considered by some Americans as immoral, we clearly make a distinction between individual notions of morality and a collective sense of legality. Death by stoning, which is thankfully a rare practice anywhere, introduces a harsh and extreme version of legality.

On the other hand, if Amnesty International and news agencies are found to be correct in their reports that a 13-year old rape victim had been stoned, then the story takes on an entirely different dimension and surpasses any discussion of morality, legality and cruel and unusual punishment. It is simply atrocious.

I could not discuss these matters further with the driver because we had reached the hotel. But neither am I able to shake off the news. It was my first conversation with somebody who defended anything as terrible as death by stoning. The clichéd conversation with cab drivers that commentators often rely upon, as if we are hard-wired that way, turned out to be anything but ordinary.

But this story is only a small part of the tragedy Somalia has become. It has been a failed state for a number of years. Piracy off its coast is not a Hollywood-style “Pirates of the Caribbean” swashbuckler but real, with economic and human costs. Neighboring Kenya has been warned by warring Somali factions that it should stay out unless it wants to be drawn into the conflict.

Perhaps there is no better time than now to follow up on these and many other global issues that we need to understand, and to see if there is something we could do constructively in order to make it a better world. This is a good time because the week of Nov. 17 is celebrated as International Education Week as well as Geography Awareness Week.

And, yes, please continue to have conversations with cab drivers, too.

For the Register Guard, November 17, 2008

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Bailout, stimulus, and the free market

In The Know: Should The Government Stop Dumping Money Into A Giant Hole?

Recession watch: Now Japan, too

The G20 summit has ended, which is why the planet feels cooler all of a sudden--after all that hot air :-) ha ha. You know what was even funnier? This news report:
US President George W. Bush emerged from the G20 summit Saturday satisfied with having preserved the principles of free market economics, while leaving his successor wide room for maneuver
Excuse me, there is a "free market"? As Johnny Carson used to say, "I did not know that!" Would the "free market" apply to the 700 billion dollar bailout of private corporations? The proposed 25 billion dollar bailout of the Big3? The massive agriculture subsidies? I will stop here .... no time to list 'em all :-(

Anyway, the news is that Japan has caught the recession bug:
Japan, the world’s second-largest economy, has officially slipped into recession, hurt by weak export growth and steep cuts in corporate spending amid the worsening global slowdown.
Japan’s gross domestic product shrank at an annual rate of 0.4 percent from July to September after declining a revised 3.7 percent in the previous quarter, the government said Monday. It was the first time since 2001 that Japan’s economy has contracted for two consecutive quarters, the definition of a recession
The UK got into that even earlier:
The economy shrank for the first time in 16 years between July and September, confirming that the UK is on the brink of recession. The UK will be classed as being in recession if the economy slows in the fourth quarter as well.
On Wednesday, the Bank of England said the UK has probably entered a recession in the middle of 2008 and is likely to continue to contract well into 2009
In between Japan and the UK, in terms of the largest economies, are Germany and China. So, what is the news from them? Thanks for asking! According to the FT:
Germany has officially plunged into recession with economic activity contracting much faster than expected in the third -quarter, intensifying fears about the depth and duration of continental Europe's downturn.
Gross domestic product in Europe's largest economy fell by 0.5 per cent in the three months to September, extending a 0.4 per cent drop in the previous quarter, the German statistical office reported.
You are probably thinking, hey, Germany is the big dog in Europe. So, does it mean that that entire part of the world is in recession? Ah, the power of critical thinking! Doggone it, you are right, says AFP:
The 15-nation eurozone fell into recession for the first time ever, EU data showed on Friday, with Europe's economic powerhouse Germany among the hardest hit.
Gross domestic product in the economies using the eurozone fell by 0.2 percent in the third quarter after a similar drop in the second quarter, according to the Eurostat figures.
Everybody says the same thing: the worst is yet to come. And I am, like, you got to be kidding me! It was almost humorous to read in the following in the Guardian: "But while output is expected to contract next year, the US economy is predicted to lead the way towards recovery." Wait a minute; the US predicted to lead the recovery? How? By printing a few gazillion dollar bills?I don't get this.

And, you are meanwhile thinking, hey, what about China? You know, I have a pet theory. Let me present it:

For many years now, China's economy has grown at double-digit rates. However, in order to keep inflation under check, among other reasons, the government made sure that a significant surplus created was saved. And it saved that in the US and other places.

This kind of savings created the glut that Bernanke gushed about. Soon, we came up with dizzying schemes to exhaust the savings.

Meanwhile, China's prosperity came from ravaging the environment.

So, here is a thought experiment: we would all have been better off if only China's economy had not grown by leaps and bounds. If, for instance, their average growth rates had only been about six percent, then all the gains from the exports would have accrued pretty much to the Chinese.

No "additional" surpluses that would have resulted in China-dollars that made Americans consume like crazy.

That much of a slower Chinese growth would have also resulted in a significantly lesser environmental impacts.

Which means, in the crisis we have now, we have screwed up the environment for nothing. It is not even as if we have something to show for everything from the Three Gorges Dam to polluted skies to .....

I like my framework here. Not that I am blaming the Chinese for everything that has gone wrong. But, I do wonder about the wisdom in that relentless pursuit of economic growth that merely exported its natural resources as US Treasury notes!!!

Gender in higher education

I wonder if gender studies at universities have started recognizing the trends shown in the two graphs here:

Assuming that the Source is right, of course.

Kissinger's kiss of death: he approves of Obama and Clinton!

When Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace, the mathematician/satirist Tom Lehrer observed that it signified the highest form of satire. He said, ""It was at that moment that satire died," says Lehrer, "There was nothing more to say after that." (At the end of this post, you can watch one of Lehrer singing one of his satires--on the bomb.)

Kissinger has been the target of Christopher Hitchens--while with a sharp tongue, a satirist he is not. Back in 2002, Hitchens went ballistic with the appointment of Kissinger to the 9/11 inquiry commission, and wrote:
But can Congress and the media be expected to swallow the appointment of a proven coverup artist, a discredited historian, a busted liar, and a man who is wanted in many jurisdictions for the vilest of offenses?
Of course, Hitchens has literally produced a book of criminal charges against Kissinger.

And, I am in the Lehrer and Hitchens camp when it comes to Kissinger.

Which is why I think Kissinger's approval of Hillary Clinton as Obama's potential secretary of state is an insult to Clinton, Obama, and the entire world! FT Reports:
Henry Kissinger, the former senior US statesman, yesterday gave his firm backing to Hillary Clinton as the next US Secretary of State in the forthcoming Democratic administration.
Speaking at the World Economic Forum’s India meeting, Mr Kissinger said ”I believe it would be an outstanding appointment,” if Barack Obama, the president-elect, chose Senator Clinton for the foreign affairs portfolio.
“If it is true [that she is in the running], it shows a number of things, including great courage on the part of the President-Elect. To appoint a very strong personality into a prominent cabinet position requires a great deal of courage.”
I just wish the media would stop reporting Kissinger's blathers.
And, here is Tom Lehrer singing the satire on the bomb:

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Are you eating beef, or chicken, or corn?

Well, it is all the same. Kind of. According to a study,
The bulk of a fast-food hamburger from McDonald's, Burger King or Wendy's is made from cows that eat primarily corn, or so says a new study of the chemical composition of more than 480 fast-food burgers from across the nation.
And it isn't only cows that are eating corn. There is also evidence of a corn diet in chicken sandwiches, and even French fries get a good slathering of the fat that makes them so tasty from being fried in corn oil. .....
Eating a diet of meat from corn-fed animals hasn't been linked to any specific health effects in humans. But it has resulted in widespread environmental degradation, including drained water supplies, degraded soils, and reliance on fossil fuels for fertilizer, pesticides and farm machinery fuel, says preventive medicine physician Bob Lawrence, director of the Center for a Livable Future at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who was not involved in the study.

Nasdaq: same value as 11 years ago. OMG!

James Surowiecki
Here’s a fairly amazing market statistic for you: right now, the Nasdaq is below where it was on July 15, 1997. Eleven and a half years of incredibly volatile stagnation

Coulda been a (presidential) contender

And, definitely the attorney-general in the Obama administration. He would have been a terrific "enforcer" of the law. Would have gone after the rogues and thieves, and anybody trying to hide behind funny accounting. But, he messed it up big time with sex.

It is Eliot Spitzer that I am referring to. If only he had resisted the temptations of the flesh! Spitzer would have been one solid candidate for the AG spot, and will be well in line for the 2016 presidency. When I read his profile in the New Yorker a few years ago, way way before his sex scandal/crime, my immediate thought was President Spitzer. Ah, lesson learnt--we are humans, and we err, particularly the smartest ones.

In WaPo, Spitzer has an op-ed. I wonder if this is his first ever public comments on policy questions since his public statement that he was stepping down as NY's governor. In that op-ed, Spitzer writes:
No major market problem has been resolved through self-regulation, because individual competitive behavior doesn't concern itself with the larger market. Individual actors care only about performing better than the next guy, doing whatever is permitted -- or will go undetected. Look at the major bubbles and market crises. Long-Term Capital Management, Enron, the subprime lending scandals: All are classic demonstrations of the bitter reality that greed, not self-discipline, rules where unfettered behavior is allowed.
Those who truly understand economics, as did Adam Smith, do not preach an absence of government participation. A market doesn't exist in a vacuum. Rather, a market is a product of laws, rules and enforcement. It needs transparency, capital requirements and fidelity to fiduciary duty. The alternative, as we are seeing, is anarchy.
Well, the message is on the mark. If only the messenger had not strayed :-(

While not the same set of dynamics, here is Marlon Brando uttering the famous line from On the Waterfront: "I coulda been a contender, instead of a bum, which is what I am - let's face it"

And here is Robert De Niro uttering the same lines in Raging Bull:

Coriolanus, politics, and democracy

The presidential primary season was just about in its peak last May, when I went to Ashland to watch three plays with freshmen in the Honors Program. One of the plays was Coriolanus, by Shakespeare. I had no clue about the play. My colleague, the theatre faculty, said that it was an absolutely perfect play to watch and think about, given the war and election season.

The folks at Ashland did a great job. (When the play ended, I was thankful that they did not adapt it to any other time period, as they occasionally do with Shakespearean plays.) Once again, Shakespeare punched the lights out of me--how did that guy manage to do all that fantastic stuff? And such profound dramas!

Even as the play was progressing, it was difficult not to compare it with contemporary American social and political events. Later on in the summer, politics unfolded the way Shakespeare wrote about--four hundred years ago, and about events that occurred more than 2000 years ago! Obama droppin' the "g" or not mentioning arugula after one mishap, all in order to relate to the commoners. Later on the hilarious attempts by McCain to relate to Joe the Plumbers, and the "betcha" folksy Palin .... well, Shakespeare portrays these so well in Coriolanus.

Here is a neat essay on Coriolanus, from the New English Review (once again, thanks to AL Daily). The author notes that:
Has political life really changed very much since Shakespeare’s day, at least as portrayed in Coriolanus? If anything, it seems to have regressed towards it, having perhaps (but only perhaps) have moved away from it for an interlude of a century or two.

Demagogues and war heroes we have with us still, while discernable principles seem very few and far between. The crowds are still demanding that the candidates display their war wounds: when Mrs Clinton ‘mis-spoke’ she was trying to demonstrate that she, too, knew what it was to be under fire. The desire and willingness to present others in the worst possible light, as a sufficient argument in itself, is still with us.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Divorce in "Second Life". No, not from the Onion.


A British couple who married in a lavish Second Life wedding ceremony are to divorce after one of them had an alleged "affair" in the online world.

Amy Taylor, 28, said she had caught husband David Pollard, 40, having sex with an animated woman. The couple, who met in an Internet chatroom in 2003, are now separated.

"I went mad -- I was so hurt. I just couldn't believe what he'd done," Taylor told the Western Morning News. "It may have started online, but it existed entirely in the real world and it hurts just as much now it is over."

Second Life allows users to create alter egos known as "avatars" and interact with other players, forming relationships, holding down jobs and trading products and services for a virtual currency convertible into real life dollars.

Taylor said she had caught Pollard's avatar having sex with a virtual prostitute: "I looked at the computer screen and could see his character having sex with a female character. It's cheating as far as I'm concerned."

The couple's real-life wedding in 2005 was eclipsed by a fairy tale ceremony held within Second Life.

But Taylor told the Western Morning News she had subsequently hired an online private detective to track his activities: "He never did anything in real life, but I had my suspicions about what he was doing in Second Life."

Pollard admitted having an online relationship with a "girl in America" but denied wrongdoing. "We weren't even having cyber sex or anything like that, we were just chatting and hanging out together," he told the Western Morning News.

Taylor is now in a new relationship with a man she met in the online roleplaying game World of Warcraft.

Buy coffee to stimulate the economy

Michael Kinsley has been a huge favorite of mine--for his ability to analyze major policy issues and interpret them in simple language (such as his column on on why social security privatization won't work), and the humor that is there in anything he writes. The heights of humor was in the column that he wrote about his brain surgery.

In this column in the NY Times, Kinsley yet again injects that humor into a discussion of the current economic crisis. Here is an excerpt:

Without consumers to lead the charge, an economic recovery will be hard to achieve. And yet everyone agrees that we need to start saving more. So should I buy that coffee maker to stimulate the economy? Or should I save the money in order to “grow” the economy and provide for my own old age? I can’t do both.

This is the dilemma that 30 years of Reaganomics (the real Reaganomics — keeping the economy overstimulated with huge deficits and irresponsible consumer borrowing — not the fantasy Reaganomics of government run like a family and tax cuts that pay for themselves) has left us with. So what do we do? The nearest thing to an actual plan seems to be something like this: stimulate first, to avert various short-term disasters, and then — at some signal from the Treasury Department — turn around and start saving like mad, to avert various long-term disasters. In other words, we need to get back our consumer confidence, and then lose it again.

The first part is fun. We just keep doing what we’ve been doing, only more and faster. The deficit may soar to $1 trillion a year while the government hands out cash to whoever shows up at the teller’s window. Each of us can do our own bit as well. Show your consumer confidence. One last shopping spree. Buy that coffee maker whether you want one or not.

Part II will not be fun. Return the coffee maker (if the store is still in business), and deposit the money in your 401(k). Start drinking instant.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The mall is dead. Really? Wow!

[The] American mall—that most quintessential of American institutions—is in its dying throes, if not already dead. Moribund malls have not gone unnoticed amongst industry analysts and Web sites like that feature photos of hundreds of now-abandoned sites. But what were once just worrying signs appear to have finally flat-lined. Last year was the first in half a century that a new indoor mall didn't open somewhere in the country—a precipitous decline since the mid-1990s when they rose at a rate of 140 a year, according to Georgia Tech professor Ellen Dunham-Jones, coauthor of the forthcoming book "Retrofitting Suburbia," which focuses on the decline of malls and other commercial strips. Today, nearly a fifth of the country's largest 2,000 regional malls are failing, she says, and according to the International Council of Shopping Centers, and a record 150,000 retail outlets, including such mall mainstays as the Gap and Foot Locker, will close this year.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Oil at $58.40 per barrel

Oil prices are collapsing faster than how the NY Mets collapse towards the end of the regular season! It is now trading at less than $60 per barrel; in fact, as I am typing this, it is at $58.40! What a mighty fall from $147 per barrel only a couple of months ago!

One of the best things that can come out of this: it will mess up Iran, Russia and Venezuela. Venezuela's Hugo Chavez will soon be in big trouble, because:
The government has based its 2009 budget on a price of $60 per barrel. Oil revenues account for some 90% of Venezuela's export earnings, more than 50% of the government's budget revenues and around 30% of gross domestic product.
There is thus much at stake. Government rhetoric is now dominated by talk of saving money and austerity, and the country being able and willing to take steps to live with oil prices at 2007 levels ($60 to $70 dollars per barrel) or less. Stress is also being put on the scale of Venezuela's international reserves of nearly $40 billion.

It is speculated that Russia might want to form an OPEC-like natural gas cartel. And it also wants a greater role in global oil prices. Well, wouldn't Putin like that! In fact, that might be the only way he can prop up the prices and also secure his own position.

And in Iran, 60 economists have published an open letter critiquing Ahmedinejad's policies:
"Meager economic growth, widespread jobless rate, chronic and double-digit inflation, crisis in capital markets, government's expansionary budget, disturbed interaction with the world, inequity and poverty have combined with the global economic downturn to leave undeniably big impacts on exports and imports," the letter says.Ahmadinejad immediately blasted back, contending at a seminar on economic development that Iran has been "least affected by this international financial crisis" and urging economists to design "an independent economic system and model based on justice," according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Naughty or nice? Uncle Sam knows :-(

A page from Ripley's "Believe it or not"

So, are we "polarized" or "unified"?

Bill Bishop, whose thesis is that we continue to sort ourselves with respect to our religious, social, and political preferences, which is reflected in our spatial aggregation, says that the 2008 elections have only divided the country even further. In his final entry in the blog at Slate, Bishop concludes that:

The vote last week was transformative in a sense. In many ways, however, the election produced no change at all. The country is split in much the same way it was divided four and eight years ago. People continue to sort by age and by way of life. As a result, our communities (and states) are growing more like-minded.
Oh, and there is the continuing and stark racial division in both the geography and how Americans live. In Republican-landslide counties, blacks and Hispanics are distinct minorities. Where McCain won by 20 percentage points or more, there were five Anglos of voting age for every black or Hispanic, Cushing found. In Obama-landslide counties, there are 1.3 whites for every black or Hispanic. Obama counties and McCain counties are very different places.
Liberals and Democrats seem to think the country's divisions have disappeared just because their man won. And it is easy to ignore people on the other side when they aren't your neighbors. But that doesn't mean the country is less polarized-because it isn't.
In his regular blogging place, Daily Yonder, Julie Ardery notes the importance that college towns played in Obama's victory, and reports on how one student made his decision:

According to an Indianapolis news station, "An IU student who identified himself as a Republican said he threw his support to Obama at the last minute because of the something the Democrat said on ‘Monday Night Football.’
"'He was asked, "What would you change in college football," and he said he wanted a playoff system,' said IU student Ben Dyar. 'It was really tied before that, but that pretty much sent me over the edge. I decided to vote for Obama.'"
Oh well.

Meanwhile, the guys who analyzed the 2000 election data and showed that the red-state/blue-state divide is not accurate, and that the country is varying shades of purple, have more interesting cartograms based on the 2008 data. They note that:

large portions of the country are quite evenly divided, appearing in various shades of purple, although a number of strongly Democratic (blue) areas are visible too, mostly in the larger cities. There are also some strongly Republican areas, but most of them have relatively small populations and hence appear quite small on this map.

Here is to hoping for no more wars ....

Iceland's deep freeze

From the blog at the Economist:
Iceland’s entire banking system is ruined. In addition to the usual domestic credit shock, this financial sector collapse is causing havoc to the import and export sectors, which are crucial to this small open economy. International bank transfers are difficult. Capital controls are in place; a multiple exchange-rate system is operating. Many companies are facing bankruptcy. Others are thinking of moving abroad. Polls show that a third of the population is considering emigration.

The International Monetary Fund has promised aid, but the Dutch and British governments are demanding compensation for citizens that deposited billions in an Icelandic bank’s high-interest saving accounts. Since Iceland’s GDP is down 65% in euro terms, repayment is unlikely—especially if the nation’s best and brightest move abroad to escape the shock and growing tax burdens. This has happened before. The Great Irish Famine triggered a mass emigration shock which tipped the nation into a downward spiral; population fell in most counties from 1840 to 1961, according to O’Grada and O'Rourke (1997).

I learned all this from a fascinating Vox column posted 12 November by Jon Danielsson, who is a Reader (professor, in American English) of finance at the LSE. Here’s the most sobering bit:
In this crisis, the strength of a bank’s balance sheet is of little consequence. What matters is the explicit or implicit guarantee provided by the state to the banks to back up their assets and provide liquidity. Therefore, the size of the state relative to the size of the banks becomes the crucial factor. If the banks become too big to save, their failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
That’s worth paraphrasing: If banks are too big to save, failure is a self-fulfilling prophecy. There are several European nations with banks their taxpayers could not save.

Monday, November 10, 2008

World War II was NOT a fiscal stimulus!!!

Paul Krugman has a timely column for one reason: the right, which never liked the characterization of FDR as one of the greatest presidents, and who have always sought to dismantle many of FDR-initiated programs, is now all the more in a hysteria over another FDR-style government intervention in the economy.

What really caught my attention in the op-ed was Krugman's honesty in assessing FDR's record. Particularly, this sentence: "What saved the economy, and the New Deal, was the enormous public works project known as World War II, which finally provided a fiscal stimulus adequate to the economy’s needs."

When I was at Calstate, one course that I taught was "Economy and Society", which was to convey economic ideas to the teacher-prep majors. I would routinely ask them something like, "hey, it looks like WWII was good for the economy. so, does it mean that whenever we fall into an economic rut, we ought to just start a large-scale war?"

It always got them thinking, and they would start providing all kinds of responses. Until somebody pointed out that there was severe rationing. and then somebody else would point out the enormous loss of life and property we suffered, and the world suffered.

In other words, I wish Krugman hadn't written that sentence, or phrased it that way. It was not the fiscal stimulus of WWII, but it was literally blood all over the place that re-started the economy. I mean, everybody on the planet knows that Krugman is a progressive liberal, and there is no way he meant to minimize the loss of life and property. But, it is also the unfortunate aspect of economics that loss of lives--in millions--becomes a mere economic footnote, and not the main story. The main story in economics is always only economic growth.

I have a love-hate relationship with economics. Which is why I systematically stayed away from a PhD in economics itself, but did read up on it .... and continue to ....

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Avoiding clichés is not rocket science

The top ten most irritating phrases:
1 - At the end of the day
2 - Fairly unique
3 - I personally
4 - At this moment in time
5 - With all due respect
6 - Absolutely
7 - It's a nightmare
8 - Shouldn't of
9 - 24/7
10 - It's not rocket science

Commentary here

Friday, November 07, 2008

Bailout in a graphic

Make sure your underwear fits!

Make sure your underwear fits and is unobtrusive, consider whether your eyebrows are a distraction to others and, at all costs, avoid looking cheap.
This is the grooming advice given to new staff at Leeds Metropolitan University as part of a guide to etiquette.
The rules were set out during “manners training”, which included how to walk wearing a hat, how to select the correct cutlery during dinner and how to make polite small talk.
In the chapter on developing a “personal brand”, the graduate trainees were told to avoid wearing “clashing colours, crumpled or stained clothes” and to make an effort not to appear “frumpy, tarty, [or] lazy”, Times Higher Education reports.

Don't they have anything else to do? More here I agree with this:
one academic, who asked not to be named and was not so keen to mind his manners, said that the guide was “a broth of self-important snobbery that most of us thought had been laughed out of existence in the 1960s”.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Professor in Chief

Siva Vaidhyanathan noted that "professorial" was being used in the media as if it were a horrible way of life. Well, whatever incorrect connotations the media and some of the public might have employed, Richard Monastersky notes that there is now a Professor-in-Chief:
When Barack Obama takes the oath of office next January alongside his running mate, Joe Biden, it will be the first time in history that the president, vice president, and both of their spouses have worked in higher education.
Taken together, the Obamas and the Bidens have amassed decades of experience at colleges and universities. Mr. Obama taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School from 1992 until 2004, when he took office in the U.S. Senate. His wife, Michelle, has worked in the administration at the same university and is on leave from her job as vice president for community and external affairs at the University of Chicago Hospitals.
The Bidens also have spent considerable time in academe. For the past 17 years, Mr. Biden has taught as an adjunct professor at the Widener University School of Law. His wife, Jill, is an English instructor at Delaware Technical and Community College's
Stanton-Wilmington campus.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Eating locally to save the planet? Think again.

A follow-up to an earlier post about food-miles. Ron Bailey cites a study by economic geographer Pierre Desrochers and economic consultant Hiroko Shimizu, who challenge the notion that food miles are a good sustainability indicator. And, importantly:
the debate over food miles is a distraction from the real issues that confront global food production. For instance, rich country subsidies amounting to more than $300
per year are severely distorting global agricultural production and trade. If the subsidies were removed, far more agricultural goods would be produced in and imported from developing countries, helping lift millions of people out of poverty. They warn that the food miles campaign is "providing a new set of rhetorical tools to bolster protectionist interests that are fundamentally detrimental to most of humankind." Ultimately, Desrochers and Shimizu's analysis shows that "the concept of food miles is...a profoundly flawed sustainability indicator."

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