Thursday, January 29, 2009

carbon emissions, and how to bypass them :-(

So, the Economist made me think about something that should have been pretty obvious to me, given that one of the topics I teach is the economic geography of resources. All these years I have been explaining to students how there is lots of oil under the North Sea, and how Norway is a huge oil exporter. And an exporter of natural gas too.
In other contexts, I have also talked about how Scandinavians value and cherish clean air, water, ....

Yet, I had completely failed to note the contradiction in Norway's image of cleanliness with its tremendously profitable exports--oil and natural gas--which are one hell of a polluter! What a moron, eh? Writes the Economist:
Yet for all its environmental piety, Norway is also a prodigious polluter. Its greenhouse-gas emissions have grown 15% since it adopted the carbon tax. They are still rising, and are likely to continue to do so until 2012, according to Mr Stoltenberg. As it is, Norway spews out more emissions per head than many other countries in Europe. And, in the eyes of many environmentalists, these statistics understate the damage Norway is doing to the atmosphere. It is the world’s third-biggest exporter of gas and fourth-biggest exporter of oil. The process of extracting these fuels from below the North Sea releases some greenhouse gases within Norway itself. But when the oil and gas Norway exports are burned abroad, they generate far more emissions.
Maybe Norway's situation is more a philosophical challenge than an economic one. It does remind me of accusations that Mother Teresa was accepting large donations from people who were renowned crooks. Her argument was that she didn't care who dropped what in the donation box!

But seriously, is it ethical to advocate for caring for the environment when the country exports a gazillion barrels of oil every year?

Well, that was a couple of days ago. And that was from a publication that is center-right. Another British publication, the Guardian, which never leans to the right, has an interesting news report--that
Britain's biggest polluting companies are abusing a European emissions trading scheme (ETS) designed to tackle global warming by cashing in their carbon credits in order to bolster ailing balance sheets.
The sell-off has helped trigger a collapse in the price of carbon, making it cheaper to burn high-carbon fossil fuels and leading to a fall in the number of clean energy projects.
The report adds:

The EU's emissions trading scheme was set up as a market solution to cut greenhouse gas pollution from industry. Polluters were issued with permits that can be traded between companies and countries as a way of encouraging an overall reduction in carbon output. However, companies are now cashing them in for their own financial benefit.

Up to €1bn-worth of carbon emissions permits are said to have been sold off in recent months as industrial companies see an opportunity to bring in funds at a time when their carbon output is expected to fall due to lower production.

Nothing makes sense anymore :-(

Our teaching, and students' learning

We could wait for campus administrators to demonstrate more leadership for instructional improvement and innovation, but few are prepared to push much beyond content coverage, the surface of traditional teaching. “Publish or perish” has a way of focusing attention on what the elite research universities deem important. In the 1990s, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching issued three widely read reports—the first which is often referred to as the Boyer Report—on the state of teaching and learning in higher education. These reports concluded that undergraduate education at research universities, in particular, suffers from a skewing of the faculty reward system toward research and grant writing. ...

While we must push for more equity in pay at all levels, we as instructors can do much to improve our own teaching, deepen student learning, and support our colleagues locally and elsewhere. Conducting formal midsemester student feedback sessions and developing other mechanisms for soliciting input can resolve problems, boost morale, encourage collegial support and assistance, and provide valuable material for the scholarship of teaching.

Amen! Read the entire essay in AAUP's Academe.

Uyghurs in Guantanamo

A wonderful aspect of teaching is that it is a version of “life is like a box of chocolates you never know what you’re gonna get.”  The latest was when students introduced themselves in one of my classes, and one student said that her off-beat name reflects her Uyghur heritage. 

When I, from a land of a billion people, am a rare ethnic representative on campus, a Uyghur student at our university was beyond my wildest imagination.  So, naturally excited am I!

Up until this term, the Uyghurs (also spelt Uighurs) had been only an academic concept to me ever since reading about Muslims in China, in the far western province of Xinjiang.  Not anymore—I am now able to identify this academic concept with a real person. 

As a graduate student many years ago, one of the first things I did upon reading about the Uyghurs was to play my favorite game in such contexts, which is to establish a connection to India!  It turned out that it was not a difficult process at all, and it did not involve very many degrees of separation. 

In the English language, we use a word "mogul" when we refer to highly powerful businessmen.  Well, this word reflects the powerful and influential "Mughal Empire" that ruled over a large part of the Indian subcontinent, until it was replaced by the British. 

The Mughal dynasty began in 1526, when Babur defeated the reigning sultan in Delhi. The empire had some of its glorious years under Akbar and Shah Jahan--it was Shah Jahan who built the Taj Mahal.  Babur descended from Timur (also known as Tamerlane), who was Turkic, with some Mongol heritage. The Uyghurs also speak a Turkic language.  Aha, I had linked up the Uyghurs to India!

But, I was not happy once I understood that the Uyghurs were pretty much in the same situation that the Tibetans are, and fear the loss of language, culture, and traditions under the heavy-handed rule of the Chinese government. 

A reader might wonder why we should care about some eight million or so Uyghurs in a remote part of China.  Well, we in the US have even fewer degrees of separation, through a direct and controversial connection—Guantanamo

Soon after the US and NATO forces liberated Afghanistan from the Taliban regime, the US picked up a number of people while sweeping the area for Taliban and Al-Qaeda militants.  In the process, we apparently also picked up a few Uyghurs who happened to be in that area.  Their presence in Afghanistan is not that difficult to imagine, given that Xinjiang is so much out in the west of China that its borders abut Afghanistantoo. 

Designated as enemy combatants, these Uyghurs were confined to Guantanamo.  However, as it became clear that the Uyghurs were not involved with any militant activity directed against the US, five of them were released from Guantanamo.  But, they did not want to be sent back toChina out of a fear that they might be tortured there.  No other country offered to take them either, except Albania, which is they are since their release in 2006.  What a strange story of globalization! 

Meanwhile, another fifteen of the remaining seventeen Uyghurs in Guantanamo have been cleared for release, but more than a hundred countries contacted by the US have refused to take them.  While Uyghur families in the US have offered to house and help rehabilitate them, our government is not in favor of fifteen Guantanamo alums living within our borders. 

The status of the Uyghurs in Guantanamo will soon have to be addressed by the Obama administration.  The fundamental issue though is the Chinese government that continues with its policies of denying rights, particularly to minorities.  The Tibetan story is all too familiar to us; the situation in which the Uyghur are trapped in is very similar, which is why it is also referred to as China’s other Tibet problem. 

The slide from Timur’s expansive empire, which provided an environment for Turkic culture to flourish, to having a few of their people locked up inGuantanamo, has been quite a tragic tale for the Uyghur people.  I suppose life is not always a box of good chocolates.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Sino-American tensions .... continued

Commentators are all over the place ever since Tim Geithner referred to China's currency manipulation. Charles Wallace has an interesting point, which I have not seen elsewhere:
An anomaly of Geithner's remarks to the Senate finance committee last week was his comments on the dollar. After accusing China of manipulating its currency, he declared that "a strong dollar is in America's best interests" (the same thing that Paulson used to say repeatedly). The Chinese must be scratching their heads over that comment: Do the Americans want a strong dollar or a strong yuan? As the new overseer of U.S. currency policy, Timothy Geithner is not making much sense.

How to keep alive newspapers, which are dying fast

I like this idea:

we are dangerously close to having a government without newspapers. American newspapers shoulder the burden of considerable indebtedness with little cash on hand, as their profit margins have diminished or disappeared. Readers turn increasingly to the Internet for information — even though the Internet has the potential to be, in the words of the chief executive of Google, Eric Schmidt, “a cesspool” of false information. If Jefferson was right that a well-informed citizenry is the foundation of our democracy, then newspapers must be saved.

Although the problems that the newspaper industry faces are well known, no one has offered a satisfactory solution. But there is an option that might not only save newspapers but also make them stronger: Turn them into nonprofit, endowed institutions — like colleges and universities. Endowments would enhance newspapers’ autonomy while shielding them from the economic forces that are now tearing them down.

Sitting back is not an option.

The problem is, we have very, very few examples to test on:  America during the Great Depression, and Japan in the 1990s.  And neither America nor Japan managed to stimulate their way out of their troubles.  You can argue--and many do--that this is because we, and they, didn't stimulate enough.  That may be true.  But unless you can forward test your theory, it's a just so story . . . as we just painfully found out about the "It was all the Fed's fault" narrative of the 1930s banking collapse.  There is no excuse for calling people who question your highly theoretical model fools and charlatans.

What we've got, since Japan really never did emerge from its lost decade, is basically one fact: America entered World War II in a depression, and emerged from World War II without one.  Hopefully, the relevant variable was the massive, massive amount of spending, rather than any of the other explanations one can plausibly build about the effect of Total War on depressions--like the slaughter of some of your excess labor force, or the substitution of more immediate fears of being killed for panic about the financial future.
That was Megan McArdle.  

The fact that we don't have successful lessons from the past to lean on, and learn from, is why I am so convinced that we need the Warren Buffett honesty as we tackle the recession.  Buffett remarked that:
The answer is nobody knows. The economists don’t know. All you know is you throw everything at it and whether it’s more effective if you’re fighting a fire to be concentrating the water flow on this part or that part. You’re going to use every weapon you have in fighting it. And people, they do not know exactly what the effects are. Economists like to talk about it, but in the end they’ve been very, very wrong and most of them in recent years on this. We don’t know the perfect answers on it. What we do know is to stand by and do nothing is a terrible mistake or to follow Hoover-like policies would be a mistake and we don’t know how effective in the short run we don’t know how effective this will be and how quickly things will right themselves. We do know over time the American machine works wonderfully and it will work wonderfully again.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Meanwhile, the Israel-Palestinain two-state issue

Thomas Friedman makes a lot of sense when he is not being a master manipulator of metaphors.  The fewer the metaphors, the more powerful and succinct his argument.
Consider this for instance, from his column:

We’re getting perilously close to closing the window on a two-state solution, because the two chief window-closers — Hamas in Gaza and the fanatical Jewish settlers in the West Bank — have been in the driver’s seats. Hamas is busy making a two-state solution inconceivable, while the settlers have steadily worked to make it impossible.

If Hamas continues to obtain and use longer- and longer-range rockets, there is no way any Israeli government can or will tolerate independent Palestinian control of the West Bank, because a rocket from there can easily close the Tel Aviv airport and shut down Israel’s economy.

And if the Jewish settlers continue with their “natural growth” to devour the West Bank, it will also be effectively off the table. No Israeli government has mustered the will to take down even the “illegal,” unauthorized settlements, despite promises to the U.S. to do so, so it’s getting hard to see how the “legal” settlements will ever be removed. What is needed from Israel’s Feb. 10 elections is a centrist, national unity government that can resist the blackmail of the settlers, and the rightist parties that protect them, to still implement a two-state solution.

And, in case you want to see for yourself what Friedman is referring to, well, here is a Sixty Minutes take on it:

Hey, good luck to you, George Mitchell, on getting that prized job as the Middle East Envoy!

More on Sino-American tensions

In politics, small issues can gather momentum all of a sudden while the larger issues continue to be neglected.  Remember the Terry Schiavo bill and the Congress?  I mean, Bush had to give up his Crawford vacation time in order to get to DC only to address this!
It will awful if the Chinese currency issue vaults to the top of the political agenda.  More on this, in addition to my earlier note, from the Economist:

The basic economic analysis—that a stronger yuan, on a trade-weighted basis, is necessary to rebalance China’s economy away from exports—is surely right. But the world’s immediate problem is a dramatic shortfall in demand across the globe and that will not be righted by exchange-rate shifts. Currency movements switch demand between countries; they do not create it. In the short-term, therefore, the outlook for the world economy depends on whether governments’ stimulus packages are successful and, right now, team Obama would do better to focus on the scale, nature and speed of Beijing’s stimulus measures than rant about the currency. What’s more, the evidence for currency manipulation is weakening. Although China still runs a huge current-account surplus, it is no longer accumulating foreign-exchange reserves at a rapid clip, as capital is flowing out of the country.

More important, the political calculus could easily misfire. Domestically, Mr Geithner’s comments may simply fan congressional flames for tougher action on China. Lindsey Graham, a senator who first pushed for a 27.5% tariff against China in 2005, called the comments “music to my ears”. 

Music to Sen. Graham's ears will not get us out of this global economic crisis.  Yes, this will/should be a part of the longer-term global economic restructuring. As much as the ag subsidies, ethanol subsidies, gas tax, social security, and everything else ought to be discussed.  But, just as we are not discussing overhauling social secturity right now, we ought to stay away from the "currency manipulation" angle for now.

A neocon signs off ....

William Kristol has his final NY Times column.  
Now, this is a change I can believe in and celebrate :-)

Slumdog Millionaire bombs in India

Think about this: if you live in India, and are either living the life in a slum, or are middle class walking or driving past slums everyday, or are the upper class where you have no concept of the reality of the slums, well, why would you want to go to a movie hall to watch a movie about slums, a kid in the outhouse falling into human shit that is underneath, the violence in the slums, the religious hatred that exists among a few Hindus and Muslims, ...... even though the movie is more about love, and doing the right things, ....?

It is no wonder then that
On Friday, a day after Slumdog Millionaire was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, the movie filled just 25% of the seats for its debut in theaters across India, the country of its setting. Buoyed by the hype the movie has generated in the U.S. — along with its Oscar nods and four Golden Globe awards, Slumdog on Sunday won the "best cast" award from the Screen Actors Guild — Fox Searchlight released 400 prints of the film across India last weekend. But while Indian critics have largely embraced the movie, audiences are staying away. Theaters showing the movie averaged 50% of capacity on Saturday
The Time report adds:
For many Indians, the film's subject and treatment are familiar to the point of being banal. A lot of Indians are not keen to watch it for the same reason they wouldn't want to go to Varanasi or Pushkar for a holiday — it's too much reality for what should be entertainment. "We see all this every day," says Shikha Goyal, a Mumbai-based public relations executive who left halfway through the film. "You can't live in Mumbai without seeing children begging at traffic lights and passing by slums on your way to work. But I don't want to be reminded of that on a Saturday evening." There is also a sense of injured national pride, especially for a lot of well-heeled metro dwellers, who say the film peddles "poverty porn" and "slum voyeurism."

Sunday, January 25, 2009

BHO meet LBJ, says Juan Cole

I have been worried about Pakistan for a long time, ever since the news that the Taliban and al-Qaeda slipped across to Pakistan--perhaps even with help from the ISI.  So, misery preferring company, I always feel better whenever I read essays that point to the literal and figurative landmine that Pakistan is ....

Juan Cole, who is no half-baked character, unlike me, is an authority on the Middle East and the geopolitical complications.  His "informed comment" on the missile strike in Pakistan leads off with the following sentences:
On Friday, President Barack Obama ordered an Air Force drone to bomb two separate Pakistani villages, killing what Pakistani officials said were 22 individuals, including between four and seven foreign fighters. Many of Obama's initiatives in his first few days in office -- preparing to depart Iraq, ending torture and closing Guantánamo -- were aimed at signaling a sharp turn away from Bush administration policies. In contrast, the headline about the strike in Waziristan could as easily have appeared in December with "President Bush" substituted for "President Obama." Pundits are already worrying that Obama may be falling into the Lyndon Johnson Vietnam trap, of escalating a predecessor's halfhearted war into a major quagmire.
Lots of worrying thoughts in that piece.  Let me just highlight a couple:
The Bush administration launched 30 air attacks on targets in Pakistan in 2008, killing 220 persons. The strikes seem to have started in the summer, during the presidential campaign, about a year after candidate Obama began urging this policy. Bush may have instituted the aerial attacks to deny Obama a campaign talking point and to prevent him from out-hawking John McCain. That is, Obama may have pushed Bush -- who had earlier been wary of alienating Pakistan -- to the right. 
Cole does not tie the argument to specific dates/timeline to establish the Obama campaign talking point leading to the air attacks.  But, even if the trigger was not Obama's talking point, and even if Bush had authorized them on his own, there is no question that Obama was all in support of going into Pakistan--unilaterally--if the Pakistani government was unwilling or incapable of finishing the job.   According to a ABC report from August 1, 2007:
"I understand that President Musharraf has his own challenges," Obama said, "but let me make this clear. There are terrorists holed up in those mountains who murdered 3,000 Americans. They are plotting to strike again. It was a terrible mistake to fail to act when we had a chance to take out an al Qaeda leadership meeting in 2005. If we have actionable intelligence about high-value terrorist targets and President Musharraf won't act, we will."

Cole then concludes thus, and I think he is right on target (no pun intended!):
Despite the positive harbingers from Obama of a new, civilian-friendly foreign policy that will devote substantial resources to human development, the very first practical step he took in Pakistan was to bomb its territory. This resort to violence from the skies even before Obama had initiated discussions with Islamabad is a bad sign. It is not clear if Obama really believes that the fractious tribes of the Pakistani northwest can be subdued with some airstrikes and if he really believes that U.S. security depends on what happens in Waziristan. If he thinks the drone attacks on FATA are a painless way to signal to the world that he is no wimp, he may find, as Lyndon Johnson did, that such military operations take on a momentum of their own, and produce popular discontents that can prove deadly to the military mission.
This is not looking good .... I hope the President knows what he is doing, and I hope he is right on this.  If not, ... Vietnam, indeed :-(

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Meet the author of "Our Dumb Planet"

China, America, and tensions

We forget that before 9/11, which was fateful in many ways all across the world, the US-China relations were absolutely tense.  Remember the military incident on China's Hainan Island?  PBS' Frontline had a fantastic piece on the importance of this a couple of years ago.  That was in April 2001--only a couple of months into Bush's presidency.  It seemed like the decade would be one of economic, political, and military confrontation with China.

Everything changed only a few months later, on September 11th.  In the nearly seven years since the Hainan Island incident, China has become one money-generating machine from which America borrowed like crazy.  Taiwan, which was the reason why that Hainan incident happened, became a far less important issue compared to Al-Qaeda, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, North Korea.

Now, all these geopolitical issues have not gone away.  But, we seem to be starting the new presidential administration with a warning shot to China.  Only, this time it is not at all about Taiwan, but about China's economic policies.  
The Washington Post reports:
As Timothy F. Geithner moved closer yesterday to confirmation as Treasury secretary, he signaled a more confrontational approach toward China, bluntly stating that the new administration thinks Beijing is "manipulating" its currency and it will act "aggressively" using "all the diplomatic avenues" to change China's currency practices.
James Fallows, who has written extensively on China, is not at all happy with this memo to China.  He writes:
we've got a situation where a journalist (moi-meme) is listening to a renowned expert and wondering, Can he possibly believe that things are as simple and bald as what he's just said?

The expert in question is our old friend Timothy Geithner, who when he was not being grilled about his tax problems today was saying (in his written answer to questions) that China is"manipulating" its currency. Oh my. Where do we start with this.

- That the Chinese government manages the value of the RMB against the US dollar and other currencies is not an accusation but an observation of universally-accepted plain fact. Until about three years ago, the RMB's value was flat-out pegged against that of the dollar, at a rate of just over 8:1.  Was that "manipulation"? Yes, in the same sense that the yen was for years "manipulated" at a steady rate against the dollar, or perhaps in the sense that the US "manipulates" its national borders by controlling them. 
Fallows goes on to list many more wonderful points, before concluding:
I lack the energy to go any further down this list, and this is enough to make the point. These are just a tiny few of the factors that go into any US government consideration of how the RMB/dollar relationship affects the economies of both countries. And to boil it down to the bald assertion that "China is manipulating its currency" ignores, vulgarizes, and misconstrues a lot more than it clarifies. 
Hey, it seems to be a strange new year (year of the ox) greeting from the US!

Friday, January 23, 2009

Quote of the day

"The American system of higher education has become an insane assembly line -- bankrupting families to process hapless students through an incoherent, haphazard and mediocre liberal arts curriculum."
Camille Paglia

A new "axis of evil"?

Thus writes Nicholas Carr (via The Daily Dish)

Three things have happened, in a blink of history's eye: (1) a single medium, the Web, has come to dominate the storage and supply of information, (2) a single search engine, Google, has come to dominate the navigation of that medium, and (3) a single information source, Wikipedia, has come to dominate the results served up by that search engine. Even if you adore the Web, Google, and Wikipedia - and I admit there's much to adore - you have to wonder if the transformation of the Net from a radically heterogeneous information source to a radically homogeneous one is a good thing. Is culture best served by an information triumvirate?

It's hard to imagine that Wikipedia articles are actually the very best source of information for all of the many thousands of topics on which they now appear as the top Google search result. What's much more likely is that the Web, through its links, and Google, through its search algorithms, have inadvertently set into motion a very strong feedback loop that amplifies popularity and, in the end, leads us all, lemminglike, down the same well-trod path - the path of least resistance. You might call this the triumph of the wisdom of the crowd. I would suggest that it would be more accurately described as the triumph of the wisdom of the mob. The former sounds benign; the latter, less so.

Well, you may want to re-read this posting on whether Google is making us stupid!

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Oscars: Benjamin Button and Slumdog Millionaire

The Oscar nominees were announced earlier this morning.  Two of the movies with lots of nominations are nothing but Forrest Gump retold in different ways.  Of course, Gump itself was a retelling of Zelig in some ways.  
Well, earlier I noted how Slumdog Millionaire was so much a Forrest Gump version.  But, as the following video clip shows, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is really the best adaptation of Gump :-)  What creativity in these guys, eh! I wish I were half as creative as these talented people are!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Atheists have their moment at the Inauguration?

President Obama including "nonbelievers" in his address, and declaring them as American as believers in any religion is neat.  I wonder if this the religious equivalent of "only Nixon could have gone to China" in the sense that having clearly conveyed to the religious people his belief "in the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus Christ", Obama could then boldly state that nonbelievers are a part of this country.  Hey, thanks President Obama.  

But, am curious about his choice of the word "nonbelievers".  After all, Obama is immensely talented with words, which means that he carefully chose this word.  It can mean different things based on the one listening.  It can mean those who don't believe in Jesus, or those who don't believe in Mohammed, or .... , or it can mean atheists.  

As Sam Harris observed, to a believer in one religious faith, the others are non-believers.  
Our religions are intrinsically incompatible with one another. Either Jesus rose from the dead and will be returning to Earth like a superhero or not; either the Koranis the infallible word of God or it isn’t. Every religion makes explicit claims about the way the world is, and the sheer profusion of these incompatible claims creates an enduring basis for conflict.
Well, the infidels!  And these are no different from atheists.

I asked Joe Conn of Americans United for Separation of Church and State if any other president had included atheists and agnostics in an inaugural speech, and he couldn't think of one. I can only be grateful to Obama for reminding his audience--including Rick Warren--that nonbelievers are Americans, too.

More from satire: this time HRC

Hillary Clinton Mouthing Along To Presidential Oath

January 20, 2009 | Issue 45•04

WASHINGTON—Network news cameras covering Barack Obama's inauguration ceremony Tuesday captured Hillary Clinton silently moving her lips along with each word of the minute-long presidential oath of office. As she stood watching several yards from Chief Justice John Roberts, the former Democratic presidential candidate could be observed placing her left hand on a leather appointment book and raising her right hand slightly from her hip. Clinton, who carefully followed the swearing-in procedure with her eyes shut tightly, only varied from the president's words once, when she soundlessly mouthed her name instead of Barack Obama's. Clinton was later seen at an inaugural ball pretending she was dancing with first lady Michelle Obama

How do these guys do it, week after week?

Remarkably talented and smart these sarcastic comedians are. And hats off to the show for doing this right on day one:

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The world according to entertainers!

I just cannot understand how one can babble like this in the open!
I’d really like that. I’d like to see better things happen for the United States. I’d like to see us become better people. I’d like to see us find our direction. But I know — and you know — that the next year or two are gonna be a bitch. Not just because the financial markets are in deep trouble, because the banks don’t want to lend money, because it ruins their status quo. It was explained to me; I don’t think I could explain it to you righteously, but it made sense when I heard the explanation. Basically, the bank is sitting because they’re not below what their paperwork should say and they’re not above what their paperwork should say — they’re right at their paperwork mark and they don’t want to move from that. Also, the housing market has to come back to realistic levels so people can actually afford to do the things that they want to do. If you want to buy a house, that is reasonable; you should be able to do that in this country and still feel like you’re moving forward.

No, this was not Bush. These are the golden words from Whoopi Goldberg. And, no, it was not a comedy act either.
Thanks to Reason.

The transition

Another view from across the Atlantic:
In recent times it has often seemed as if many of the big questions in US and international affairs have been simplified to the point where any child can grasp them. A primer in politics, economics and science could perhaps be boiled down thus. Name the main cause of man-made global warming: President George W Bush. Outline the central causes of the war in Iraq: President George W Bush. Analyse the factors giving rise to the terrorist threat today: President George W Bush. Explain the origins of the financial crisis: President George W Bush. Give reasons for the ‘dumbing down of America’: see above. Etc, etc.
Like it or not, I fear it will not only be the cartoonists and impressionists who will miss the easy target in the White House when he has gone. Without such an obvious boil to blame for all of their ills, the liberal intelligentsia on both sides of the Atlantic might even be forced to confront some deeper questions about themselves and the sort of societies in which we live. Or perhaps they can just keep on blaming Bush for the next 20 years - after all, there are many over here in the UK who would still like to hold old Margaret Thatcher responsible for the current crisis
Hey, good luck, Mr. President--Barack Obama

Monday, January 19, 2009

Waterboarding: watch this insanity

and then watch the AG-nominee's call on waterboarding:

I am so glad we have an AG nominee who categorically states that waterboarding is torture.
A few months ago, Chris Hitchens voluntarily went through waterboarding and wrote about it. Here is the video from that:

A 150 million dollar offer that I refused :-)

Here is the email from "Prof N.M Gadzama" that just popped up:
I am the P.A to the Vice president of Nigeria Chief Goodluck Jonathan
Mr. Vice President has a transaction to the Tune of $150 Million USD.
Can you handle it? Please do respond with your direct phone number. So we can discuss.

Best regards
Prof. N.M Gadzama
Any takers?  Feel free to contact Prof. Gadzama but only after you read this

Coronation? The view from across the pond

Katty Kay covers American politics for the British Broadcasting Corporation. She is Washington correspondent for BBC World News America and has lived in DC for the past 12 years. An excerpt from her piece:

[There] is a more serious problem with treating Barack Obama as an elected monarch; one that affects us journalists, in particular. Put a man on a pedestal and suddenly it's hard for the press to drag him through the political wringer. It happened in 2003 in the run up to the invasion of Iraq and risks happening again.

In Britain, we invest the Queen with our ceremonial hopes which leaves us free to treat our prime minister as exactly what he is—an elected official, paid for by the taxpayers, and serving at the people's will. While George W. Bush was being asked patsy questions by a subdued White House press corps, Tony Blair was being drubbed by un-cowed political hacks. It is far easier to do when you don't stand the moment the man walks into the room.

Barack Obama has a four-year rental on the White House. We would do well to remember he doesn't possess the freehold.

America got rid of King George for good reason and it toyed recently with another dynastic George. Wasn't that enough? January 20 is indeed a day for celebration, as the world watches the peaceful transfer of power in Washington. I simply wish we could tone down the royal trappings just a smidge. Who really needs another coffee mug anyway?

Spending our way into economic prosperity?

An excerpt from a FT opinion piece by David Walker, who was the head of the Government Accountability Office from 1998 to 2008.  I especially like his point on stimulus as a down payment on the future.

In fairness, we cannot assign all the blame to Mr Bush. Congress bears some responsibility, as do the American people. After all, in our constitutional republic it is “We the People” who are ultimately account able for what happens in Washington.


Any stimulus proposal should be timely, targeted and temporary. It should be large enough to make a difference, but not too large, and be properly structured in order to minimise waste. It should be designed to stimulate job growth and make targeted infrastructure and other investments to make America more competitive.

While some stimulus is called for, we cannot spend our way into economic prosperity, especially when all new spending is debt-financed. It was troubling to see one prominent incoming senior economic official refer to the Obama administration’s planned stimulus proposal as a “down payment” on the future. How can something be a down payment when there is no equity involved? This is an example of how words used in Washington do not always fit Webster’s definitions.

The president and Congress must put a process in place that will enable elected officials to reimpose tough statutory budget controls and reform our nation’s Social Security, Medicare, healthcare and tax systems. All these require significant reforms that Washington has delayed for too long. We also need a baseline review of all main spending and tax choices to re prioritise them to reflect 21st-century realities. 

Climate change

On the stimulus package

“One man's expenditure is another man's income.” 


That was the succinct remark from the economist John Maynard Keynes, describing the world that was trapped in the Great Depression where tightening spending and loss of income worsened the situation for each other. 


Now, as we try to deal with the worst recession ever since that awful Great Depression, Keynes’ ideas are again rapidly gaining favor among economists and policymakers alike.  And, yet again, the fundamental struggle is to figure out how to get households and businesses to spend such that it will trigger “another man’s income.”


The latest economic data show that retail sales were down almost ten percent compared to a year ago.  What a dilemma: on the one hand, unnecessary material consumption being down can be good for the environment.  However, in a consumption-driven economy, a dramatic and sudden decrease in expenditures will only ensure that the economic recession that we are in will get nastier.  In the quite strange and complex global economy that we operate in, it turns out saving money is not a virtue if it completely dampens the spending.   


I was thinking about all these when my neighbor walked over to remind me about getting the gutters in my home cleaned.  When I told him that we are planning to get the exterior of our home painted this coming summer, he lightheartedly remarked that I might be the only one in town spending money a few months down the road.  As our conversation on the economy ended after only a few minutes in the freezing cold, we parted company and rushed to the warm interiors agreeing that it is not going to help the economy if everybody stopped spending. 


This unique quality of money is best summed up by Dolly Levi—the lead character in “Hello, Dolly!”—who  often quotes her late husband’s words: “Money, pardon the expression, is like manure. It's not worth a thing unless it's spread around encouraging young things to grow.”  Yes, the words from the musical are far more meaningful today as economic interpretation than as mere Broadway lyrics more than forty years ago.


Dolly’s advice to spread the money, or Keynes’ observation, imply that when people and businesses stop buying, the economy has no growth opportunity whatsoever.  As corporations tighten their expenditures, for instance, corporate aircrafts are being shunned, and we feel the impact right away in terms of job losses at the Cessna plane factory in Bend. 


And households tightening their spending and eating only at home quickly leads to job losses at local eateries—sometimes even permanent closures of those establishments, as has been the case with CafĂ© Zenon and El Vaquero. When consumers are no shows at eateries, it affects the jobs of those who work there, which in turn affects their own spending habits. These horrible multiplier effects can have disastrous impacts causing a massive downward spiral.


After driving myself crazy with such half-baked analysis of the global economic meltdown, I decided to take my daughter’s advice and simply stop reading and thinking.  For a while, at least. 


Thus, on a cold but sunny Saturday morning, I headed out to The Country Bakery on the remarkably picturesque Peoria Road.  It was past nine in the morning, and about 31 degrees, when I parked on the gravelly driveway.  The moment I stepped in to the bakery, I knew I had forgotten my worries about the economy.  How could I not, when I was greeted with the warmest smile, and with fresh pies, breads, and doughnuts on the shelves?    


As I walked out with a marionberry pie and a glazed doughnut, two other vehicles pulled up.  I wondered whether they too came in for that simply delicious home-baked comfort food, made by a baker who wakes up at midnight to get things going. 


Sitting in the car, I bit into the doughnut, which had quickly cooled down with that momentary exposure to the freezing temperature.  That is when I thought that maybe we do have a guaranteed way out of the recession: every man, woman, and child in America will get a pie from The Country Bakery.  Now, that is a package with a lot of stimulus in it.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Fox News v. Al-Jazeera: The war of the worlds :-)

I simply wonder how the world might be if all the nearly seven-billion people could watch only two television news channels: Fox News and Al-Jazeera.  I find even the thought experiment too much to handle--maybe I am not brainy enough, eh!

Both the news channels are openly partisan.  Of course, Al-Jazeera beats Fox hollow in terms of its total disregard of neutrality and objectivity.  But, it will make quite an interesting study.  Maybe subject volunteers to news only from these two channels for about a month, and then have them read newspapers or watch CNN.  What do you think will happen to those volunteers?  Brought a smile to your face, right?  

In a well-written piece in the Boston Globe, Eric Calderwood, a doctoral candidate at Harvard, discusses Al-Jazeera, and ends with:
In a way, that's the paradox of Al-Jazeera's war journalism: It is flagrantly political, but accompanied by a real curiosity about other perspectives. It also makes me wish for something else: A TV network with the bravery to show the war imagery you can see on Al-Jazeera, but the integrity to do it in the service of peace, rather than the service of a side. Its violent imagery, however unpleasant, would be a strong stand for the individual against violence, and for human compassion against easily fanned hatreds.
Want a taste of it?  Here is an Al-Jazeera report on the Gaza situation:

The Secular Right

We often hear about the "religious right".  But, rarely about the "secular right".  It is simply impossible that there are conservatives who are not religious, right?  After all, it simply cannot be the case that all atheists are only lefties.

While far from a conservative myself, I found it simply fascinating a few years ago to read an essay by Heather Mac Donald in which she discussed why she is an atheist.  I had read a few essays by her in the City Journal, and almost always I disagreed with her.  Mac Donald comes to issues with a Reason-like rigid libertarian perspective and, while there is a lot of libertarian in me, well, there are issues where I lean left.
But, it was not that much a surprise because it is easy to imagine libertarians as atheists.
It is, therefore, not an eyebrow raiser by any means to read that Mac Donald is a contributing blogger at the Secular Right.  
I hadn't heard about this blog until earlier today.  Their mission sounds like it was time Conservatives were reminded of this:
We believe that conservative principles and policies need not be grounded in a specific set of supernatural claims.  Rather, conservatism serves the ends of “Human Flourishing,” what the Greeks termed Eudaimonia. Secular conservatism takes the empirical world for what it is, and accepts that the making of it the best that it can be is only possible through our faculties of reason.
I wish these people lots and lots of luck.  A reformed GOP will be far more constructive than the current one held hostage by the "religious right"
Mac Donald will certainly not get any invitations to Rick Warren's Christmas party after writing pieces like this:
Since believers give credit to God for answering their prayers when they are saved from catastrophe or illness, they have to explain why he answered their prayers and not those other people’s prayers, why he saved these children from a tsunami and not those other children.  Any believer who today thanks God for making sure that his coronary bypass operation was successful has to explain why God allowed at least 37 peasants to be buried in a Guatemalan landslide on Sunday.  
In another post, Mac Donald notes:

The teen birth rate has started climbing again. As usual, it’s highest in red states and states with high black and Hispanic populations and lowest in New England blue states. In 2006, Mississippi, New Mexico, and Texas topped the list, with 68, 64, and 63 births for every 1000 female teens, respectively, compared to 19 births per 1000 female teens in New Hampshire and 21 in Vermont and Massachusetts.

Will more religion cure this scourge? Not by itself. Mexican-American teens have the highest birth rate—93 births per 1000 girls—compared to 64 births per 1000 black girls and 26 births per 1000 white girls. Decadent secular Europe and non-Christian Asia lag far behind. In 2003, Japan’s teen birthrate was 3.9 births per 1000 girls. Italy’s rate was 6.9 per 1000, and France’s, 10 births per 1000 girls.

You go, girl!

The problem with Somalia

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The "Global War on Terror". NOT!

Last Thursday, it was the British Foreign Secretary David Miliband who gave the real speech--not president Bush.  
In that speech, which was on the final day of his visit to India, Secretary Miliband noted that:

Terrorism was not invented or started on 9/11. But since then, the notion of a "war on terror" has defined the terrain. The phrase had some merit: it captured the gravity of the threats we face, the need for solidarity amongst allies, and the need to respond with real urgency - and where necessary with force.

But for a couple of years now the British Government has used neither the idea nor the phrase "war on terror". The reason is that ultimately, the notion is misleading and mistaken. Historians will judge whether it has done more harm than good. But we need to move on to meet the challenges we face.

The issue is not whether we need to attack the use of terror at its roots, with all the tools available to us. We must. The question is how we best do so.

The notion of a war on terror gave the impression of a unified, transnational enemy, embodied in the figure of Osama Bin Laden and the organization of Al Qaeda. In fact, as India has long known, the forces of violent extremism remain diverse. Terrorism is a deadly tactic, not an institution or an ideology.

The global threat from violent extremism has become more real because technology enables terrorists to connect more easily with each other, whether to plot and plan or to ape each other's tactics and techniques. But it is also more potent because Al Qaeda and its ilk seek to aggregate different local, regional and religious problems into a single complaint: the alleged oppression of Muslims around the world.

Yet the motivations and identities of terrorist groups - from Hizbollah to the Taleban, Tamil Tigers and Lashkar e Toiba - are disparate not singular. The more we lump terrorist groups together and draw the battle lines as a simple binary struggle between moderates and extremists or good and evil, the more we play into the hands of those seeking to unify groups with little in common, and the more we magnify the sense of threat. The trap to avoid is inadvertently sustaining Al Qaida's propaganda - their claim that disparate grievances add up to a unified complaint. We should expose their claim to a compelling and overarching explanation and narrative as the lie that it is.

Bailout for the porn industry. ha ha ha

Yes, this is a couple of weeks after the news item.  But, it was interesting to read Daniel Drezner's comments on this:
Flynt and Francis do make one penetrating insight in their complaint -- adult entertainment sales and rentals are shrinking much more quickly than overall DVD sales and rentals.  So it would be fair to say that compared to mainstream Hollywood, the adult entertainment sector is getting pounded.  Unless the economy can manage to mount a robust and vigorous upturn sometime soon, it makes sense for the adult entertainment industry to beg for a more direct and forceful stimulus package.
As I was reading it, I was sure that Drezner meant the double entendre "all the way".  I mean, look at the words he uses in the post: "penetrating", "shrinking", "getting pounded", "mount", "forceful stimulus package" ..... good going Professor Drezner :-)
BTW, the title of that post? "Things are hard all over the economy".  I tell you, university professors have a great sense of humor, despite popular myths!!!!

Maybe this is what Megan McArdle meant when she blogged that it is not possible to discuss the economics of the adult entertainment industry without the double entendres ....

Obama, India, race, and caste

India has a long history with the caste system.  Sometimes I think that the system will somehow, and unfortunately, survive even all the globalization, which otherwise is one hell of an equalizing force.  Lakshmi Chaudhry has more on this:

Many Indians believe Obama's victory makes all things possible for people of color everywhere--including the many American grandchildren, nieces, nephews and cousins who, thanks to globalization, are part of the Indian extended family. "My granddaughter can now be president of the United States," boasted a university professor who was shopping at the local mall in Bangalore, echoing the sentiments of my mother, an aunt and her neighbor.

And yet for all the rhetoric about America's racist history, Indians have preferred to avoid any mention of our ever-present racism. There's been nary a word on the cognitive dissonance between all this Obama-love in a culture that refers to people of African origin as habshis, an epithet as offensive as the N-word. Like all well-indoctrinated postcolonial subjects, most Indians regard Africans with contempt for being poor, "backward" and, above all, black--a cardinal sin in a nation obsessed with skin color. ("Fairness" creams remain the top-selling cosmetic on the Indian market.) Sure, Obama was one of "us" when he was running for president. But he wouldn't be if he were one of the many African students in, say, Delhi struggling to rent an apartment or hail a cab.

Only Sunday and Monday left for pardons!

I was driving back home when I listened to the president bid his adieu in which he reminded us about the very successful two-terms in which he made all the tough decisions on behalf of us.  It felt like he was telling us that in order to make sure that we would rather take up the president-elect's advice to look forward and not backwards.

Which is why I like the following comments by Christopher Hayes:

1) Yesterday, AG designee Eric Holder said, without hesitation that water-boarding is torture.

2) Dick Cheney has admitted authorizing water-boarding.

3) Dick Cheney has admitted authorizing torture.

4) Torture is a felony under US law punishable by up to 20 years of prison.

5) Dick Cheney authorized a felony.

QED, right? Is there any other way to reason through these premises and deductions?

Friday, January 16, 2009

The worst is yet to come?

So, Circuit City is officially liquidating.  Bloomberg reports that

 Circuit City Stores Inc., the bankrupt consumer-electronics retailer, hired four liquidators to sell all the remaining merchandise in 567 stores before it goes out of business, the company said today.

Circuit City signed an agreement with retail liquidators Great American Group WF LLC; Hudson Capital Partners LLC; SB Capital Group LLC; and Tiger Capital Group LLC, the company said.

The announcement comes a day after the company held an auction it billed in court papers as its last chance to survive bankruptcy as an intact, though smaller, chain.

“We are extremely disappointed by this outcome,” said James A. Marcum, acting chief executive officer, in a statement. “The company had been in continuous negotiations regarding a going-concern transaction. Regrettably for the more than 30,000 employees of Circuit City and our loyal customers, we were unable to reach an agreement with our creditors and lenders.”

I shudder to think that this blood-letting will continue on throughout 2009, and maybe even into 2010.  
The latest issue of Foreign Policy has commentaries from five "doomsayers" whose bottom line is that it ain't over yet.  Looks like they want us to understand that this is a lull before the second and final storm blows through and levels out some of the structures made unsteady the first time around.
Excerpts from a couple:

Dean Baker:

once the financial situation begins to return to normal (which might not be in 2009), investors will be unhappy with the extremely low returns available from dollar assets. Their exodus will cause the dollar to resume the fall it began in 2002, but this time, its decline might be far more rapid. Other countries, most notably China, will be much less dependent on the U.S. market for their exports and will have less interest in propping up the dollar.

For Americans, the effect of a sharp decline in the dollar will be considerably higher import prices and a reduced standard of living. If the U.S. Federal Reserve becomes concerned about the inflation resulting from higher import prices, it might raise interest rates, which could lead to another severe hit to the economy.

Nouriel "Dr. Doom" Roubini:

The global financial pandemic that I and others had warned about is now upon us. But we are still only in the early stages of this crisis. My predictions for the coming year, unfortunately, are even more dire: The bubbles, and there were many, have only begun to burst.

The prevailing conventional wisdom holds that prices of many risky financial assets have fallen so much that we are at the bottom. Although it’s true that these assets have fallen sharply from their peaks of late 2007, they will likely fall further still. In the next few months, the macroeconomic news in the United States and around the world will be much worse than most expect. Corporate earnings reports will shock any equity analysts who are still deluding themselves that the economic contraction will be mild and short.