Saturday, February 28, 2009

State of the Union--well, from Warren Buffett

It is interesting how every year Warren Buffett's letter to shareholders contrasts with the presidential State of the Union Address. And, more often than not, Buffett's assessment on the state of the world is far more genuine than the President's. This year too ....

Buffett writes:
During 2008 I did some dumb things in investments. I made at least one major mistake of commission and several lesser ones that also hurt. I will tell you more about these later. Furthermore, I made some errors of omission, sucking my thumb when new facts came in that should have caused me to re-examine my thinking and promptly take action.
Can you imagine a President being this honestly self-critical?

What does Buffett say about the housing-led crisis?
Commentary about the current housing crisis often ignores the crucial fact that most foreclosures do not occur because a house is worth less than its mortgage (so-called “upside-down” loans). Rather, foreclosures take place because borrowers can’t pay the monthly payment that they agreed to pay. Homeowners who have made a meaningful down-payment – derived from savings and not from other borrowing – seldom walk away from a primary residence simply because its value today is less than the mortgage. Instead, they walk when they can’t make the monthly payments.
Here is one more of Buffett's that I like:
The investment world has gone from underpricing risk to overpricing it. This change has not been minor; the pendulum has covered an extraordinary arc. A few years ago, it would have seemed unthinkable that yields like today’s could have been obtained on good-grade municipal or corporate bonds even while risk-free governments offered near-zero returns on short-term bonds and no better than a pittance on long-terms. When the financial history of this decade is written, it will surely speak of the Internet bubble of the late 1990s and the housing bubble of the early 2000s. But the U.S. Treasury bond bubble of late 2008 may be regarded as almost equally extraordinary.
Clinging to cash equivalents or long-term government bonds at present yields is almost certainly a terrible policy if continued for long.
Finally, Buffett highlights the problems that lie ahead:
This debilitating spiral has spurred our government to take massive action. In poker terms, the Treasury and the Fed have gone “all in.” Economic medicine that was previously meted out by the cupful has recently been dispensed by the barrel. These once-unthinkable dosages will almost certainly bring on unwelcome aftereffects. Their precise nature is anyone’s guess, though one likely consequence is an onslaught of inflation. Moreover, major industries have become dependent on Federal assistance, and they will be followed by cities and states bearing mind-boggling requests. Weaning these entities from the public teat will be a political challenge. They won’t leave willingly.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Great (economic) Expectations

What would you say if the economy grew at 5.3 percent? I bet you would say that is fantastic, right? Well, it all depends. It depends on the geographic area where this number is touted. In India, the 5.3 percent growth is described as "dismal":
The Indian economy grew by 5.3 per cent in the third quarter, the slowest quarterly growth this fiscal, pulled down by contraction in manufacturing and farm production even as some services showed robust expansion.
What a contrast to the downwardly revised GDP numbers for the US that shows a nastier recession than previously estimated! Anyway, the good thing in this case: India is a democratic society with elections a few weeks away. So, depending on the mood of the electorate, there might be a change in the government--but, not anything chaotic.

That is not the story with China, Russia, Venezuela, ... where the regimes have a contract with the people. The contract is that people give up their political and human rights, and the government in return gives them high economic returns. Thomas Friedman likened the Chinese contract to the movie "Speed"--that the regime will not run into problems as long as a rapid economic growth rate is maintained. Robert Skidelsky writes that:
Deepening economic recession is bound to catalyze political change. The Western democracies will survive with only modest changes. But strongmen who rely on the secret police and a controlled media to maintain their rule will be quaking in their shoes. Even Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, who built his power on populist anti-Americanism, must be praying for the success of US President Barack Obama’s stimulus package to lift his falling oil revenues.

The big countries with the highest political risk are Russia and China. The legitimacy of their autocratic systems is almost entirely dependent on their success in delivering rapid economic growth. When growth falters, or goes into reverse, there is no one to blame but “the system.”

Igor Yurgens, one of Russia’s most creative political analysts, has been quick to draw the moral: “the social contract consisted of limiting civil rights in exchange for economic well-being. At the current moment, economic well-being is shrinking. Correspondingly, civil rights should expand. It’s just simple logic.” The rulers in Moscow and Beijing would do well to heed this warning.
Harvard's Dani Rodrik writes that we are on the verge of designing a Capitalism version 3.0.
When Chinese-style capitalism met American-style capitalism, with few safety valves in place, it gave rise to an explosive mix. There were no protective mechanisms to prevent a global liquidity glut from developing, and then, in combination with US regulatory failings, from producing a spectacular housing boom and crash. Nor were there any international roadblocks to prevent the crisis from spreading from its epicenter.

The lesson is not that capitalism is dead. It is that we need to reinvent it for a new century in which the forces of economic globalization are much more powerful than before. Just as Smith’s minimal capitalism was transformed into Keynes’ mixed economy, we need to contemplate a transition from the national version of the mixed economy to its global counterpart.

This means imagining a better balance between markets and their supporting institutions at the global level . Sometimes, this will require extending institutions outward from nation states and strengthening global governance. At other times, it will mean preventing markets from expanding beyond the reach of institutions that must remain national. The right approach will differ across country groupings and among issue areas.

Designing the next capitalism will not be easy. But we do have history on our side: capitalism’s saving grace is that it is almost infinitely malleable.

It looks like a fitting ending to this post will be from Dickens--not the opening lines from Great Expectations though. Instead, it is from A Tale of Two Cities:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way

The graph "they" didn't want you to see

Several authors of the 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change on the projected effects of global warming now say they regret not pushing harder to include an updated diagram of climate risks in the report. The diagram, known as “burning embers,” is an updated version of one that was a central feature of the panel’s preceding climate report in 2001. The main opposition to including the diagram in 2007, they say, came from officials representing the United States, China, Russia and Saudi Arabia.

That was from the NY Times, which quotes Stephen H. Schneider, a climatologist at Stanford University who has been involved in writing the I.P.C.C. reports since 1988,:
4 fossil fuel dependent countries accepted the text but refused the figure. Remember, at the UN, consensus means everybody, so a few countries constitute in effect a small successful filibuster. No matter how much New Zealand, small islands states, Canada, Germany, Belgium and the UK said this was an essential diagram, China, the U.S., Russia and the Saudis said it was too much of a “judgment”

Thursday, February 26, 2009

I dread the coming centenary celebrations ....

In two years, the presidential election will start all over again. The GOP candidates will all blabber the same thing about the profound importance of that year, 2011. What will that be, you ask? The centenary celebrations for Ronald Reagan, who was born on February 6, 1911. So, yes, soon after groundhog day in 2011, it will be Reagan all the time, 24x7 on Faux News, and the parading presidential wannabes will go on and on about the wisdom (ha) of Reagan.

As the Reaganpalooza begins, remember the facts about him, like the following one from Megan McArdle:
George Bush was indeed fiscally reckless, but the honor of most fiscally reckless president since FDR goes not to him, but to Ronald Reagan, who ran 6% deficits without even the excuse of a war.
I suppose you could claim that his decline was more impressive, but that decline was only about half due to tax cuts or spending; the rest was the popping of the stock market bubble, which both hammered GDP and changed the tax base in ways that made it less lucrative to the government.
McArdle is no leftie, and nor is the libertarian Mises Institute, which had this to say in 1988, at the end of Reagan's presidency:
Even Ford and Carter did a better job at cutting government. Their combined presidential terms account for an increase of 1.4%—compared with Reagan's 3%—in the government's take of "national income." And in nominal terms, there has been a 60% increase in government spending, thanks mainly to Reagan's requested budgets, which were only marginally smaller than the spending Congress voted. ....

His budget cuts were actually cuts in projected spending, not absolute cuts in current spending levels. As Reagan put it, "We're not attempting to cut either spending or taxing levels below that which we presently have."

The result has been unprecedented government debt. Reagan has tripled the Gross Federal Debt, from $900 billion to $2.7 trillion. Ford and Carter in their combined terms could only double it. It took 31 years to accomplish the first postwar debt tripling, yet Reagan did it in eight.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Stimulus package will pay Manny Ramirez, too!

Scott Boras, the agent known for representing the highest-paid players in baseball, set another record for the game's largest contract when he finalized Manny Ramirez's $20 billion agreement with the United States federal government on Thursday. "Manny's .396 batting average last season with the Dodgers, as well as his playoff performance, proved that he is as important to this country as infrastructure projects, health care, and renewable energy development," Boras said during an interview, adding that Ramirez is especially satisfied with the indefinite length of the contract. ... " A clause in the contract states Ramirez could receive an additional $6 billion if he successfully saves the American auto industry.
Well, that is not true--this is a satirical piece from, who else, The Onion :-)

The real story on Manny Ramirez' salary?
owner Frank McCourt and General Manager Ned Colletti made their latest pitch to Ramirez's representatives in a meeting at Dodger Stadium: two years, $45 million.

The proposed deal would pay Ramirez $25 million this season and includes a $20 million player option for 2010, according to baseball sources familiar with the negotiations who weren't authorized to speak publicly on the matter. Ramirez would be able to void the second year of the contract and re-enter the free agent market next winter.

Ramirez's agent, Scott Boras, was said to be informing Ramirez of the offer Wednesday evening and told the Dodgers that he could tell them of Ramirez's response as soon as this morning.

Song for Midwood

Osama bin Laden located

[Osama bin Laden] must have traveled 3.1 km over an approximately 4,000 meter pass in winter to enter Kurram, Pakistan. Doing so would have been extremely difficult for a 44-year old man with diabetes. Kurram is surrounded on three sides by the Afghan border (known as the Durand Line), which essentially cuts right though the ethnically Pushtun belt that straddles it.
the US intelligence community could make public a report based on all data collected from 2001 to 2006 [and] ... should also disprove the hypotheses that Osama bin Laden is: (1) located in the Kurram region of Pakistan, (2) located in the city of Parachinar, and (3) at one of the three hypothesized buildings.
That is from two UCLA geographers, Thomas W. Gillespie and John A. Agnew, based on an innovative study where they
use biogeographic theories associated with the distribution of life and extinction (distance-decay theory, island biogeography theory, and life history characteristics) and remote sensing data (Landsat ETM+, Shuttle Radar Topography Mission, Defense Meteorological Satellite, QuickBird) over three spatial scales (global, regional, local) to identify where bin Laden is most probably currently located.
Not bad, eh! And you thought geography was only about states and capitals :-)

Feb. 25, 1919: Oregon Taxes Gas by the Gallon

Feb. 25, 1919: Oregon Taxes Gas by the Gallon

By Randy Alfred Email 12 hours ago
Oregon's gasoline tax funded commercial and scenic highways, like the Columbia River Highway. This panoramic view looks east from Crown Point in the Columbia River Gorge.
Image: Oregon State Archives

1919: Oregon passes the nation's first per-gallon tax on gasoline. It's only a penny, and it's only one state, but you know where things go from here.

New York City started collecting registration fees on those new-fangled motor vehicles in 1901, and the state of Missouri took that road two years later. By 1914, every state collected registration fees (.pdf), and approximately 90 percent of the dough was going to road construction and maintenance.

Still, horseless carriages had a greater need for pavement than horses hauling carriages, and the long-distance capabilities of automobiles and trucks suggested a network of well-built intercity highways to rival the railroads. In Oregon, the state highway commission (created in 1913) started a "Get Oregon Out of the Mud" campaign for better roads in 1917.

Republican state legislator Loyal Graham (.pdf) sponsored the measure that made Oregon the first state in the nation to make road users pay at the pump to build and maintain those roads. Early projects included the Pacific Highway from the Washington state line to California and the Columbia River Highway along that mighty river.

The first gasoline tax was one cent a gallon (12 cents in today's money). Gasoline in those days sold for about 25 cents a gallon, which would be a bit more than $3 these days.

Colorado and New Mexico followed Oregon within six weeks to initiate per-gallon taxes. North Dakota followed later in the year. When New York finally joined the procession 10 years later, all 48 states had imposed taxes of 1, 2 or 3 cents per gallon. The federal government levied its first gasoline tax in 1932: a penny a gallon (15 cents today).

Ninety years after its inception, the Oregon gasoline tax is 25 cents imposed by the state, with up to 8 cents more in city and county taxes, and 18.4 cents for the feds. That could add up to 51.4 cents, depending on where you buy. The U.S. average is 45 cents a gallon, including the federal levy.

Oregon is still a leader in new ways to tax vehicle use. It ran a 300-car pilot program from 2006 to 2007 to test the idea of equipping all new vehicles with GPS and then taxing them by miles driven. The idea also been bandied about in Washington state, Idaho, Colorado, Texas, Minnesota, Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Massachusetts and — until President Obama nixed it last Friday — the federal government.

The future will undoubtedly be interesting.

Thanks to Greg Mankiw

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Sex, wins, and parking

Clark Kerr is reported to have said that a college administrator's job is to provide "parking for faculty, sex for students, and athletics for alumni."
An inside joke, I suppose :-)
But, wait, Clark Kerr was no ordinary guy; he was the top gun at the University of California system, and was one of the architects of the three-tier higher education model in California that was fantastic at one time. So, he could not have been joking--it is another example of many a true words spoken in jest.
And we relive the joke all over again.

Spend money, or else ....

The unbearable lightness of the stock market

Slumdog Millionaire: post-Oscar notes

First, this comment from Tunku Varadarajan, who wrote many interesting pieces in the Wall Street Journal until the arrival of Rupert Murdoch:

Maybe it's a result of 200 years of colonialism, but Indians are world champions at caring - really caring! - about what foreigners (more accurately, Westerners) think or say about them. They will live blithely with impressively foetid slums in their midst, thinking nothing of the juxtaposition of Victorian-era poverty and world-class, 21st-century living standards. But the national outrage stirred when a Western film-maker uses “slumdog” in the title of his film is an incandescent sight to behold.

That foreigner's neologism (“slumdog” doesn't exist in real parlance in India, although gali ka kutta, or alley-dog, comes close) is thought to heap more shame on the land than the slums themselves. And yet when that same film, with that same neo-imperialist title, is fêted by tuxedoed Americans at an awards ceremony watched across the globe, Indians burst with pride. Eight Oscars, yaah! Isn't that a record? Isn't A.R. Rahman the best composer in the world? Isn't Bollywood bloody wonderful? And aren't our slums a lesson in how to overcome adversity and cruelty?

Aren't our slum people stoical, resilient, self-reliant, courageous, fraternal, resolute and inventive? Aren't our slum people the world's best slum people?

Yes, we people from India are a strange lot. I routinely tell my students not to try to "understand" India because it is full of complex contradictions. There is no neat little narrative. Maybe India is truly a postmodernist society :-) So, I tell them to merely keep up with what ever goes on there ....

How celebratory is the mood in India? My mother, who rarely watches movies, and definitely not any new ones (I think) was all pumped up about AR Rahman grabbing two Oscars. The newspaper that I grew up with, The Hindu, had extensive coverage, including an editorial!
Here is an excerpt from that editorial:
The staggering interest in the fate of Slumdog Millionaire at the Oscars and the delight and celebration at its sweeping victory is a reflection of a curious but revealing fact. Although it has been made by a British Director and funded by a European company, it is seen by many at home as an Indian film. Unlike in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (which also won eight Oscars and which was also about how one man overcomes insurmountable odds), the cast of Slumdog Millionaire is almost entirely Indian. More importantly, the style that permeates the film is a curious amalgam — one that represents a true cinematic union between Hollywood and Bollywood. This interesting marriage was represented also in the choice of the film’s music, which earned India’s finest modern musician A.R. Rahman, whose compositions reflect a fusion of west and east, two richly deserved statuettes for the best original score and the best song. The recognition earned by the man who was once described as the Mozart of Madras should go a long way in opening Indian popular music to the world. India impacted on this year’s Oscars in another way, and one that deserves a special mention: the best documentary award to Smile Pinki. Shot in Bhojpuri and Hindi by Megan Mylan, it is a story about an Indian girl with a cleft lip who is socially ostracised before a social worker helps her avail of free surgery. In the midst of the delight over Slumdog Millionaire, we need to pause to also celebrate the victory of this life-affirming documentary about a real fairy tale.
To bring things to a full circle, and relate all these to where I currently live and work .... well, Megan Mylan who made Smile Pinki has Oregon connections :-) Here is an excerpt from the Statesman Journal's report:
Although the Mylan family moved to Texas after Megan finished elementary school, Jack and Irene Mylan kept their home in southeast Salem, and they return to visit each summer.Jack was a longtime law professor at Willamette University until moving on to Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. He since has retired.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Is foreign aid screwing up African countries?

The NY Times Magazine has a short Q/A with Dambisa Moyo, whose comments are highly critical of aid to African countries, and the role of celebrities. It is a short one, and worth every minute of your time to read it. An excerpt here, where she compares African countries with China:
Think about it this way — China has 1.3 billion people, only 300 million of whom live like us, if you will, with Western living standards. There are a billion Chinese who are living in substandard conditions. Do you know anybody who feels sorry for China? Nobody.
Forty years ago, China was poorer than many African countries. Yes, they have money today, but where did that money come from? They built that, they worked very hard to create a situation where they are not dependent on aid.
Of course, there are lots of studies that are also critical of foreign aid. Including studies from the World Bank itself! Here is one:

Since the early 1980s, virtually every African country has received large amounts of aid aimed at stimulating policy reform. The results have varied enormously. Ghana and Uganda were successful reformers that grew rapidly and reduced poverty. Cote d'Ivoire and Ethiopia have shown significant reform in recent years, but it remains to be seen if this is sustained. In other countries policies changed little or even got worse. The paper synthesizes the findings from ten case studies that investigate whether, when, and how foreign aid has affected economic policy in Africa.

The main findings from the case studies are that:

  • Policy formation is primarily driven by domestic political economy. Most major reforms have been preceded by economic and political crises.
  • Large amounts of aid to countries with bad policy sustain those poor policies.
  • In general donors have not discriminated effectively among different countries and different phases of the reform process. Donors tend to provide the same package of assistance everywhere and at all times.
  • Aid played a significant and positive role in the two sustained reformers (Ghana, Uganda). It helped with ideas in the initial phase. Financial assistance grew as policy improved and increased the benefits of reform, helping sustain political support.
  • The composition of aid is important. In the pre-reform period, technical assistance and policy dialogue are most supportive of reform. During periods of rapid reform, policy dialogue is important, as is finance. This is the phase in which conditional loans tend to be useful and effective. At a later stage of reform, conditionality is less useful, while finance remains important.
  • In summary, aid in some cases has been effective in supporting policy reform, and by building on the lessons from these case studies assistance could be more systematically effective in this way.

I like Kenken :-)

So, I finally got a few minutes to test drive "kenken". It is cool. I thought I might take a few games to understand the rules; I was wrong. It is so simple, and just plain fun.

Try it out at NY Times. You will enjoy it, too.

Praise the transistor!

One of the valuable benefits of being a member (hey, I am a full-member with voting rights!) of Sigma Xi is the magazine--American Scientist. Even though my life now is in the social sciences, this magazine is a wonderful way that I can educate myself--perhaps in a half-baked mode, eh--about a few of the topics in science.

One article there is about the transistor--a review of the past, and what the future might hold. Lots of wonderful observations there. One, even though it might sound trivial, actually speaks volumes about the fantastic transformation of our lives with innovations in the semiconductor field. So, what is that trivial yet profound observation?
The price of integrated circuitry has long been a constant one billion dollars per acre, in spite of the increasing number of transistors on that acre. The current price per transistor on an integrated chip is about 0.002 cents. A staple used for fastening together sheets of paper costs 10 times as much as a transistor.
Awesome, right? Thanks to all those people who toil day in and day out in research labs and chip factories.

BTW, some of the other articles there are equally fascinating:
The Tacoma Narrows Bridge
If you gamble, knowing when to stop to your advantage


Greenhouse Gasbags

The title and the content outsourced to Heather Mac Donald:

More proof that greenhouse-gas environmentalism—for liberals, one of the main reasons for getting rid of the allegedly anti-science, religiously-driven Bush Administration–is just posturing.

The California legislature has been struggling to close a $41 billion budget deficit. This is the same legislature that insists on imposing its own emissions standards on Detroit auto-makers—safely out of sight and out of the voting booth–because it cares so much about global warming. Now, if ever, one would think, would be the time to increase gasoline taxes, a two-fer that would raise revenue and discourage greenhouse gas emissions.

So did a proposed 12-cents-a-gallon surcharge on gas make it into the crippling $12.8 billion in tax hikes which the California legislature finally passed yesterday? Of course not. Voters would raise bloody hell. Better, apparently, to kill all businesses slowly with a sales tax hike than to interfere with Californians’ right to cheap gasoline. Liberal politicians’ pious devotion to the science of global warming never translates into action, unless the costs of action can be safely transferred onto non-voters. And environmental groups are just as cowardly. I sure didn’t notice the Sierra Club or the NRDC protesting when presidential candidate Hillary Clinton called for a suspension of the federal gas tax last year.

The Reader on Revolutionary Road

Kate Winslet has been nominated for an Oscar, but for the wrong movie.

Winslet was simply fantastic in The Revolutionary Road. She made sure that the character came across as real--that no viewer would ever think that the character she played could not have been possible in the 1950s. In fact, thanks to her performance, viewers would think that Winslet's character was indeed the norm, than otherwise.

I don't mean to suggest that Winslet was not good in The Reader. She was awesome. I agree with reviewers and critics who have opined that Winslet is such a terrific actor that she even in the nude scenes she is so real. However, she suffers from the story line and conversations that some times seemed rather stilted.

I suppose it is to Weinstein's credit that Winslet ended up being nominated for The Reader, and not for Revolutionar Road. I am not sure whether he did her a favor there; I think the category would have been a slam dunk for Winslet had she been nominated for the other role she played.

I have watched Winslet in so many movies that I am no longer suprised with her remarkable ease in performing the roles. What I really like about her is that she does not have the clinical/sterile approach that Meryl Streep presents. A long time ago, soon after the Titanic, Kate Winslet appeared in a movie, Hideous Kinky, that was set in Morocco. It was an impressive performance for a young actor--she was only 22 when that movie was made. In Little Children, she played the role of a restless and unhappy housewife with perfection. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was another gem.

After all the movies that she has made, she is only 33!

Well, I hope Kate Winslet is awarded the Oscar this year--even if for the wrong movie.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Recession watch: Grad Schools are Pyramid Schemes

"Brazen Careerist", Penelope Trunk, has great advice on why it is a bad idea to think of grad school as a way to escape the recession. I particularly liked:
Applications to the military increase in a bad economy in a disturbingly similar way that applications to graduate school do. For the most part, both alternatives are bad. They limit your future in ways you can’t even imagine, and they are not likely to open the kind of doors you really want. Military is the terrible escape hatch for poor kids, and grad school is the terrible escape hatch for rich kids.
Another gem in that piece: "PhD programs are pyramid schemes". Awesome :-)

F%&*ed up in Sri Lanka

I suppose it is a F%&*ed up Friday.

I blogged about the deteriorating situation in Sri Lanka, where neither side in the 26-year old civil war seemed to be concerned about civilians and, are instead, gladly bombing away. CNN reports that:
Both sides "appear to be engaged in a perverse competition to demonstrate the greatest disregard for the civilian population," according to the Human Rights Watch, in a 45-page report dated Thursday about warfare in the Vanni region of northern Sri Lanka.
"This 'war' against civilians must stop," said James Ross, legal and policy director at Human Rights Watch.
The group said that both sides are "responsible for the dramatic increase in civilian
casualties during the past month." Independent monitors say around 2,000 have been killed and another 5,000 have been wounded.
"In the last two months alone, both sides have committed numerous violations of international humanitarian law, the laws of war. While not all loss of civilian life is a
laws-of-war violation, the failure of the government forces and the LTTE to meet their international legal obligations has undoubtedly accounted for the high death tolls."

F%&*ed up in Pakistan

I earlier blogged about reports that the pilotless drones that the US was using to bomb militants in the Pakistan/Afghanistan border were flying out of bases in Pakistan. And my fear was that crap will start flying all over the place.

Now, there is more evidence of our base(s) in Pakistan. Yes, real photo evidence. Thanks to Google Earth!

The Times (London) reports with photos that the US has been flying drones from the Shamsi airbase in Baluchistan--as early as 2006. Does the acronym FUBAR come into your mind?
An investigation by The Times yesterday revealed that the CIA was secretly using Shamsi to launch the Predator drones that observe and attack al-Qaeda and Taleban militants around Pakistan's border with Afghanistan.
US special forces used the airbase during the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, but the Pakistani Government said in 2006 that the Americans had left. Both sides have since denied repeatedly that Washington has used, or is using, Pakistani bases to launch drones. Pakistan has also demanded that the US cease drone attacks on its tribal area, which have increased over the last year, allegedly killing several “high-value” targets as well as many civilians.
The Google Earth image now suggests that the US began launching Predators from Shamsi — built by Arab sheiks for falconry trips — at least three years ago. The advantage of Shamsi is that it provides a discreet launchpad within minutes of Quetta — a known Taleban staging post — as well as Taleban infiltration routes into Afghanistan and potential militant targets farther afield.
Meanwhile, the Pakistani government has okayed shaira law in the Swat region. Hey, more power and influence for the Talibans, and we are not worried, right? Again, FUBAR! The BBC reports that the US is concerned. "Concern" is not the right word here, Mr. President. Concern is if the Pakistani president has a fall and fractures his hip. In this situation, the master of the language that Obama is, I bet he can easily use way more powerful words.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

More attacks on free speech

Even the so-called liberal democratic countries are deteriorating rapidly. Awful.
Spiked has this comment before the link to a photo-essay:

Along with the double decker bus, Big Ben and red phone booths, London ‘Bobbies’ have long been a popular motif for tourist snaps in the British capital. But from this week, under Section 76 of the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008, photographing a cop can land you a fine or a 10-year prison sentence. spiked’s Nathalie Rothschild took to the streets in defiance of this latest assault on our liberties.

View photo essay

In "whom" we trust now?

As problems pile up on all fronts, I am increasingly worried that our fate lies in the hands of semi-intelligent people with an enormous ability to pontificate.
No, I am not talking about university professors; wait, am I? :-) I am not convinced about the wisdom of the crowds either.

David Rothkpof, take it away:

Watching the House interrogation of Wall Street leaders demonstrated conclusively to me that one of the greatest causes of the problems we face is that members of the House (and the Senate) simply do not have a clue about how finance works. Ask any group of 10 of these honorable yabos how a credit default swap works and one might know the answer, if that.

This is a broader problem. In a recent conversation with a retired Senator, a very prominent, respected former committee chair, he said that he guessed on a critical issue, like energy, there are only perhaps 3 or 4 legislators who actually understand our energy choice options well enough to write sensible legislation or understand what is said in a hearing. The problem is getting worse as technology, finance, even international affairs are getting more and more complicated, our legislators are falling farther and farther behind in their understanding of the fields for which they have oversight or other responsibilities.

This is not a snipe at Congress...okay, it is, but that almost seems too easy, like joking about Bush's intellect or Simon Cowell's man-boobs, but this is a serious problem, one of many with what is by far the most dysfunctional branch of the United States government.

More on fertility treatments

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Oscar predictions

A four-state solution?

Monday, February 16, 2009

Israel-Palestine two state solution: wishful thinking?

Recently, the former prime minister of Britain, Tony Blair, recalled his meeting with the former president of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, when both were in power.  When Blair asked Musharraf what help he would like, Musharraf replied, “a peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians.” Musharraf’s comment underscores the global geopolitical implications of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. 

It is an interesting irony that a Pakistani president highlighted the urgency of Israeli-Palestinian peace, given that Pakistan and India have not been at peace with each other since their creation as a two-state solution to the Hindu-Muslim issues.  So, when a two-state solution is often called for to put an end to violence in the Middle East, I wonder if we might be able to learn from the creation of India and Pakistan.

As World War II ended, it was clear that it was only a matter of time before the British Raj also came to an end.  The British government, and the leaders in India, realized that they had to figure out a solution to the increasingly incompatible political options when it came to the issue of a separate homeland for India’s Muslims, who were the largest minority group.

While historians continue to debate on the true intentions of the various entities involved, the result was a two-state solution—India and Pakistanwere carved out as two independent countries in August 1947. 

The creation of Pakistan was a rather strange case of a two-state solution because of the contrast with other “stan” countries.  While Afghanistan, for instance, means the land of Afghans, and Kazakhstan refers to the land of KazakhsPakistan does not mean it is the land of “Pakis” because there is no ethnic group of that name.  Pakistan was a name concocted to emphasize the different ethnic groups and territories: Punjab, Afghans Kashmir, Indus, and Sind.

Furthermore, Pakistan was to be composed of two territories—West Pakistan and East Pakistan—that were almost 2000 miles apart and separated by India in between.  In such a formulation, the very absence of “Bengal” in the acronym ought to have been a warning sign on the coming breakup of the country.  After all, East Pakistan was what was referred to as East Bengal in the latter days of the Raj, where Bengali-speaking Muslims were the overwhelming majority.  Thus, I suppose it was no surprise when the Bengalis of East Pakistan wanted to be free from the domination by “Pakis” of West Pakistan, which is what happened in 1971 when the independent Bangladesh came into existence.

And then, of course, the unresolved tensions over Kashmir, with both India and Pakistan claiming the territory as their own.  This territorial turf war continues on to this day, which almost triggered a nuclear-war in 1998.

The parallels with the Israeli-Palestinian tensions are not that dissimilar.  A two-state solution is being proposed, but even now the Palestinian territories are in two separate geographic areas that are not contiguous—West Bank and the Gaza Strip—with Israel’s political boundaries in between the two.  And, there are serious differences of opinions regarding Jerusalem—very similar to the Kashmir question.

Tensions between East and West Pakistan escalated after the two-state solution was implemented.  However, in the Palestinian case, over the last couple of years Gaza and West Bank have been operating pretty much independent of each other, controlled and administered by political rivals—Hamas and Fatah. 

A two-state solution did work, for instance, when the two countries of Slovakia and the Czech Republic were created out of Czechoslovakia.  But, the geopolitics there did not have the kinds of political and personal intensity that characterizes the Indo-Pak situation, or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Similarly, the collapse of the Soviet Union, which led to the birthing of new countries, like Estonia, was to a large extent nothing but a reversal to roots—after all, Estonia was gobbled up by the Soviet Union that was intent on expanding its sphere of influence and, therefore, Estonia’s independence was not really a “two-state solution.”

A two-state solution has not delivered peace and prosperity for India and Pakistan, with disagreements and violence continuing on even after almost 62 years.  I, therefore, worry that a two-state solution bringing about everlasting Israel-Palestinian peace might be wishful thinking.  But, in the absence of any other option, here is to hoping that it will pave the path for stability and peace sooner than later.

Economics is a ponzi scheme :-)

As an academic discipline, economics is at its lowest point now.  It is simply hilarious to see "Nobel" prize winning economists disagree with each other in blogs and opeds.  Simply soap-opera style to see words like "hysterical" and "freshman" and "econ101" being used to make fun of the other's arguments ..... aaah, I am so glad that economics is in such a disarray.  May I have a moment of schadenfreude?  
Yes, I read the Economist, WSJ, and mouth off economic jargon.  But, I have never believed that economics is a science, which is what "mainstream" economists wanted us to believe.  And they always were uber-confident with their mathematical models--always built on assumptions--and the results of those models.  With all those, it is simply ridiculous that they can't quite figure out how we got into this mess, and whether a stimulus will do any good, and how much good could it ever do--says a lot about the true state of the discipline.  Maybe the field of economics now itself has been built up as one big ponzi scheme :-)

Gregory Clark describes it thus:
The debate about the bank bailout, and the stimulus package, has all revolved around issues that are entirely at the level of Econ 1.  What is the multiplier from government spending?  Does government spending crowd out private spending?  How quickly can you increase government spending? If you got a A in college in Econ 1 you are an expert in this debate: fully an equal of Summers and Geithner.     

The bailout debate has also been conducted in terms that would be quite familiar to economists in the 1920s and 1930s.  There has essentially been no advance in our knowledge in 80 years.

It has seen people like Brad De Long accuse distinguished macro-economists like Eugene Fama and John Cochrane of the University of Chicago of at least one "elementary, freshman mistake."

It has seen Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, guided by Larry Summers, one of the most respected economists of our time, produce a bailout plan for the US financial system stunning in its faltering vagueness.

Bizarrely, suddenly everyone is interested in economics, but most academic economists are ill-equipped to address these issues. 

Recently a group of economists affiliated with the Cato Institute ran an ad in the New York Times opposing the Obama's stimulus plan.  As chair of my department I tried to arrange a public debate between one of the signatories and a proponent of fiscal stimulus -- thinking that would be a timely and lively session.  But the signatory, a fully accredited university macroeconomist, declined the opportunity for public defense of his position on the grounds that "all I know on this issue I got from Greg Mankiw's blog -- I really am not equipped to debate this with anyone."

The rise of the middle class

Every time I visit India, I am simply amazed at the sheer number of people who have transitioned into a middle class life.

(Though, it equally depresses me that there are millions who are "slumdogs")

So, reading the following in the Economist is not a surprise to me:
By the 1960s they comprised just under a third of the world's population. Nowadays the chance that you are a memeber yourself is high—57% of the globe count as middle class, according to Surjit Bhalla, an Indian economist.

Friday, February 13, 2009

NPR: fire Juan Williams and Mara Liasson ASAP

A couple of months ago I wrote to NPR that they ought to drop Juan Williams and Mara Liasson as their correspondents.  Because, I am sick and tired of the stuff that these two mouth off on Faux News.  (yes, every once in a while I intentionally flip the channel to Faux News in order to locate the planet they live on.)  
Well, apparently I was not the only one to complain thus to NPR.  The following news report from Media Matters is heart-warming :-)

In the wake of Juan Williams' latest outburst on Fox News, NPR has asked him to stop identifying himself as an NPR contributor when he appears on Fox.  NPR's Ombudsman concludes her assessment of the situation:

[I]n the end, NPR must decide -- as it apparently already has -- whether giving its listeners the benefit of Williams' voice is worth the cost of annoying some listeners for his work on Fox.

As a result of this latest flap, NPR's Vice President of News, Ellen Weiss, has asked Williams to ask that Fox remove his NPR identification whenever he is on O'Reilly.

Babies r us?

In The Nation, Patricia Williams, who is a law professor at Columbia (and a Harvard law alum), writes:

Nadya Suleman's saga, in other words, has highlighted a deep cognitive dissonance about whether children are "assets" or eternal expenditure, divine joy or devilish curse in a time of dwindling planetary resources. When I first heard of Suleman, my immediate thought was of Andrea and Rusty Yates--married, fundamentalist Christian believers in that ubiquitous story line about going forth and multiplying no matter what. After caring for and home-schooling five very young children with no assistance but prayer, and with accumulating signs of postpartum psychosis, Andrea Yates woke up one morning and drowned all her children with quiet efficiency.

And so the specter of psychotic breakdown haunts me when I think of the Suleman abode: one autistic child, plus 2-year-old twins, plus four other kids ages 3 to 7, plus eight newborns ranging from one to three pounds, plus a grandfather who has gone back to Iraq to earn more money for the family, plus a grandmother furious at the medical professionals who "assisted" her daughter, plus a surreally chipper Nadya, who despite the miserable odds remains enrolled as a graduate student in, of all things, pediatric counseling. This situation is undeniably sheer madness, but the public discussion seems fixated on the question of whether she can "afford" so many kids, as though if she was rich, this would be sane. ...

... Suleman takes heart looking at Angelina Jolie. Suleman and Kuczynski represent disturbing emotional extremes. But that should not excuse the rest of us from examining the oppressive competitive natality that seems to have gripped us--the fantasies of "baby bumps" and breeding, always breeding, yet more of "our kind." Our culture's antifeminist backlash and its unrealistic aspirations have bewitched Kuczynski and Suleman, these two young women who are so addled and so suggestible, so endowed and yet so impoverished. All these years after the age of "liberation," perhaps it is time to revisit the myths we still concoct about childless women's worth.

Free speech, fanatics, and .... India :-(

I normally do not like to copy/paste entire essays, but would rather provide a link.  But, this situation qualifies for an exception.  If you read this, please make sure to pass it along.

From the Independent:
Johann Hari: Despite these riots, I stand by what I wrote
The answer to the problems of free speech is always more free speech

Last week, I wrote an article defending free speech for everyone – and in response there have been riots, death threats, and the arrest of an editor who published the article.

Here's how it happened. My column reported on a startling development at the United Nations. The UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights has always had the job of investigating governments who forcibly take the fundamental human right to free speech from their citizens with violence. But in the past year, a coalition of religious fundamentalist states has successfully fought to change her job description. Now, she has to report on "abuses of free expression" including "defamation of religions and prophets." Instead of defending free speech, she must now oppose it.

I argued this was a symbol of how religious fundamentalists – of all stripes – have been progressively stripping away the right to freely discuss their faiths. They claim religious ideas are unique and cannot be discussed freely; instead, they must be "respected" – by which they mean unchallenged. So now, whenever anyone on the UN Human Rights Council tries to discuss the stoning of "adulterous" women, the hanging of gay people, or the marrying off of ten year old girls to grandfathers, they are silenced by the chair on the grounds these are "religious" issues, and it is "offensive" to talk about them.

This trend is not confined to the UN. It has spread deep into democratic countries. Whenever I have reported on immoral acts by religious fanatics – Catholic, Jewish, Hindu or Muslim – I am accused of "prejudice", and I am not alone. But my only "prejudice" is in favour of individuals being able to choose to live their lives, their way, without intimidation. That means choosing religion, or rejecting it, as they wish, after hearing an honest, open argument.

A religious idea is just an idea somebody had a long time ago, and claimed to have received from God. It does not have a different status to other ideas; it is not surrounded by an electric fence none of us can pass.

That's why I wrote: "All people deserve respect, but not all ideas do. I don't respect the idea that a man was born of a virgin, walked on water and rose from the dead. I don't respect the idea that we should follow a "Prophet" who at the age of 53 had sex with a nine-year old girl, and ordered the murder of whole villages of Jews because they wouldn't follow him. I don't respect the idea that the West Bank was handed to Jews by God and the Palestinians should be bombed or bullied into surrendering it. I don't respect the idea that we may have lived before as goats, and could live again as woodlice. When you demand "respect", you are demanding we lie to you. I have too much real respect for you as a human being to engage in that charade."

An Indian newspaper called The Statesman – one of the oldest and most venerable dailies in the country – thought this accorded with the rich Indian tradition of secularism, and reprinted the article. That night, four thousand Islamic fundamentalists began to riot outside their offices, calling for me, the editor, and the publisher to be arrested – or worse. They brought Central Calcutta to a standstill. A typical supporter of the riots, Abdus Subhan, said he was "prepared to lay down his life, if necessary, to protect the honour of the Prophet" and I should be sent "to hell if he chooses not to respect any religion or religious symbol? He has no liberty to vilify or blaspheme any religion or its icons on grounds of freedom of speech."

Then, two days ago, the editor and publisher were indeed arrested. They have been charged – in the world's largest democracy, with a constitution supposedly guaranteeing a right to free speech – with "deliberately acting with malicious intent to outrage religious feelings". I am told I too will be arrested if I go to Calcutta.

What should an honest defender of free speech say in this position? Every word I wrote was true. I believe the right to openly discuss religion, and follow the facts wherever they lead us, is one of the most precious on earth – especially in a democracy of a billion people riven with streaks of fanaticism from a minority of Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. So I cannot and will not apologize.

I did not write a sectarian attack on any particular religion of the kind that could lead to a rerun of India's hellish anti-Muslim or anti-Sikh pogroms, but rather a principled critique of all religions who try to forcibly silence their critics. The right to free speech I am defending protects Muslims as much as everyone else. I passionately support their right to say anything they want – as long as I too have the right to respond.

It's worth going through the arguments put forward by the rioting fundamentalists, because they will keep recurring in the twenty-first century as secularism is assaulted again and again. They said I had upset "the harmony" of India, and it could only be restored by my arrest. But this is a lop-sided vision of "harmony". It would mean that religious fundamentalists are free to say whatever they want – and the rest of us have to shut up and agree.

The protestors said I deliberately set out to "offend" them, and I am supposed to say that, no, no offence was intended. But the honest truth is more complicated. Offending fundamentalists isn't my goal – but if it is an inevitable side-effect of defending human rights, so be it. If fanatics who believe Muslim women should be imprisoned in their homes and gay people should be killed are insulted by my arguments, I don't resile from it. Nothing worth saying is inoffensive to everyone.

You do not have a right to be ring-fenced from offence. Every day, I am offended – not least by ancient religious texts filled with hate-speech. But I am glad, because I know that the price of taking offence is that I can give it too, if that is where the facts lead me. But again, the protestors propose a lop-sided world. They do not propose to stop voicing their own heinously offensive views about women's rights or homosexuality, but we have to shut up and take it – or we are the ones being "insulting".

It's also worth going through the arguments of the Western defenders of these protestors, because they too aren't going away. Already I have had e-mails and bloggers saying I was "asking for it" by writing a "needlessly provocative" article. When there is a disagreement and one side uses violence, it is a reassuring rhetorical stance to claim both sides are in the wrong, and you take a happy position somewhere in the middle. But is this true? I wrote an article defending human rights, and stating simple facts. Fanatics want to arrest or kill me for it. Is there equivalence here?

The argument that I was "asking for it" seems a little like saying a woman wearing a short skirt is "asking" to be raped. Or, as Salman Rushdie wrote when he received far, far worse threats simply for writing a novel (and a masterpiece at that): "When Osip Mandelstam wrote his poem against Stalin, did he ‘know what he was doing' and so deserve his death? When the students filled Tiananmen Square to ask for freedom, were they not also, and knowingly, asking for the murderous repression that resulted? When Terry Waite was taken hostage, hadn't he been ‘asking for it'?" When fanatics threaten violence against people who simply use words, you should not blame the victim.

These events are also a reminder of why it is so important to try to let the oxygen of rationality into religious debates – and introduce doubt. Voltaire – one of the great anti-clericalists – said: "Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities." If you can be made to believe the absurd notion that an invisible deity dictated The Eternal Unchanging Truth to a specific person at a specific time in history and anyone who questions this is Evil, then you can easily be made to demand the death of journalists and free women and homosexuals who question that Truth. But if they have a moment of doubt – if there is a single nagging question at the back of their minds – then they are more likely to hesitate. That's why these ideas must be challenged at their core, using words and reason.

But the fundamentalists are determined not to allow those rational ideas to be heard – because at some level they know they will persuade for many people, especially children and teenagers in the slow process of being indoctrinated.

If, after all the discussion and all the facts about how contradictory and periodically vile their ‘holy' texts are, religious people still choose fanatical faith, I passionately defend their right to articulate it. Free speech is for the stupid and the wicked and the wrong – whether it is fanatics or the racist Geert Wilders – just as much as for the rational and the right. All I say is that they do not have the right to force it on other people or silence the other side. In this respect, Wilders resembles the Islamists he professes to despise: he wants to ban the Koran. Fine. Let him make his argument. He discredits himself by speaking such ugly nonsense.

The solution to the problems of free speech – that sometimes people will say terrible things – is always and irreducibly more free speech. If you don't like what a person says, argue back. Make a better case. Persuade people. The best way to discredit a bad argument is to let people hear it. I recently interviewed the pseudo-historian David Irving, and simply quoting his crazy arguments did far more harm to him than any Austrian jail sentence for Holocaust Denial.

Please do not imagine that if you defend these rioters, you are defending ordinary Muslims. If we allow fanatics to silence all questioning voices, the primary victims today will be Muslim women, Muslim gay people, and the many good and honourable Muslim men who support them. Imagine what Britain would look like now if everybody who offered dissenting thoughts about Christianity in the seventeenth century and since was intimidated into silence by the mobs and tyrants who wanted to preserve the most literalist and fanatical readings of the Bible. Imagine how women and gay people would live.

You can see this if you compare my experience to that of journalists living under religious-Islamist regimes. Because generations of British people sought to create a secular space, when I went to the police, they offered total protection. When they go to the police, they are handed over to the fanatics – or charged for their "crimes." They are people like Sayed Pervez Kambaksh, the young Afghan journalism student who was sentenced to death for downloading a report on women's rights. They are people like the staff of Zanan, one of Iran's leading reform-minded women's magazines, who have been told they will be jailed if they carry on publishing. They are people like the 27-year old Muslim blogger Abdel Rahman who has been seized, jailed and tortured in Egypt for arguing for a reformed Islam that does not enforce shariah law.

It would be a betrayal of them – and the tens of thousands of journalists like them – to apologize for what I wrote. Yes, if we speak out now, there will be turbulence and threats, and some people may get hurt. But if we fall silent – if we leave the basic human values of free speech, feminism and gay rights undefended in the face of violent religious mobs – then many, many more people will be hurt in the long term. Today, we have to use our right to criticise religion – or lose it.

I prefer to be "base"less in Pakistan.

Fridays are when imams all across the tension-filled Islamic countries use the prayer services to engage their people on political issues too.  The congregation of people at such religious places are, sadly, opportunities for suicide bombers also.

I am sure that it did not help then for the following news item to get across just in time for the Friday gathering:
At a hearing, Feinstein expressed surprise over Pakistani opposition to the campaign of Predator-launched CIA missile strikes against Islamic extremist targets along Pakistan's northwestern border. 

"As I understand it, these are flown out of a Pakistani base," she said.

The basing of the pilotless aircraft in Pakistan suggests a much deeper relationship with the United States on counter-terrorism matters than has been publicly acknowledged. Such an arrangement would be at odds with protests lodged by officials in Islamabad, the capital, and could inflame anti-American sentiment in the country.
Hmmm ... let us recap.  The US has routinely flown pilotless drones in order to go after militants in Pakistan.  Every time such an incident happens, the people in Pakistan get upset--at the US, and at their government for letting this happen. Typically then the Pakistani government would file an official protest with the US, and .... 
Now the story takes on a different dimension altogether: a senator, who serves on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, publicly states that these are flown out of a Pakistani base!  Let us see how the shaky Pakistani government can explain this to its people, and how much the people will then tolerate their government.  Of course, this will only add to the anti-American feeling in Pakistan.

This is yet another instance where it is clear that we simply do not have a game plan when it comes to Pakistan.  We have no idea how much we are fooling around with a country that has nukes, an extremely unstable government, groups of people who want nothing but chaos for various reasons .....

I have more reasons to worry about Pakistan now .... awful.

Climate change, economics, and journalists

Like many people, I too can't but wonder where the global climate change will take us, and have blogged, and "oped"ed about it too.  
Eric Pooley writes that as much as scientists are in agreement about most aspects of climate change, most economists are also in agreement about one thing: it is cheaper to act than not to act.  He writes:  
First, there is a broad consensus that the cost of climate inaction would greatly exceed the cost of climate action—it's cheaper to act than not to act. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions by moving to alternative energy sources and capturing carbon from coal-fired power plants will cost less in the long run than dealing with the effect of rising sea levels, drought, famine, wildfire, pestilence, and millions of climate refugees. (There are some outliers who disagree with this—Danish statistician Bjorn Lomborgcomes to mind—and some respected economists, like William Nordhaus, who argue that future, richer generations will be able to more easily shoulder the cost burden than we can.) But influential mainstream economists from Paul Volcker to Robert Stavins to Lord Nicholas Stern to Larry Summers all agree that action is cheaper than inaction, even if they disagree on much else (Stavins can't stand Stern's methodology; Summers prefers a carbon tax to cap-and-trade). Stavins, director of Harvard's Environmental Economics Program, phrased it this way in a recent paper: "There is general consensus among economists and policy analysts that a market-based policy instrument targeting CO2emissions ... should be a central element of any domestic climate policy."
The second area of consensus concerns the short-term cost of climate action—the question of how expensive it will be to preserve a climate that is hospitable to humans. The Environmental Defense Fund pointed to this consensus last year when it published a study of five nonpartisan academic and governmental economic forecasts and concluded that "the median projected impact of climate policy on U.S. GDP is less than one-half of one percent for the period 2010-2030, and under three-quarters of one percent through the middle of the century." (That's a lot of money—U.S. GDP in 2007 was $13.8 trillion—but Stavins has estimated the cumulative cost of all U.S. environmental regulation to date at 1 percent of GDP, and it has not been an insupportable burden.) Stavins' climate-cost calculations come in a bit higher than those in the EDF study, ranging from less than 0.5 percent to 1 percent of U.S. GDP; he describes these as "significant but affordable impacts" that are "consistent with findings from other studies." The Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change, an influential but controversial 2006 report for the British government, concluded that climate action would cost 1 percent of global GDP (though Stern now warns that our failure to act is raising the price tag) and that inaction could reduce global GDP by up to 20 percent.
So, one might then wonder why we don't hear much about the consensus among economists.  Pooley faults journalists for this, and partly the economists themselves.  He notes that even when economists agree on the larger picture, they tend to disagree a lot, which then leads journalists to think that economists are split on this, and they then resort to reporting "both sides" of the story ....

But, all these don't worry me at all.  
I lose sleep thinking that my future and yours are in the hands of bozos, er, politicians in this country and all over the world.  Here is an example (not from climate change discussions, but from the current economic crisis).  Megan McArdle writes:
I sat here in front of my television and laughed at Maxine Waters, because her apparently random ramblings are a true spectacle.  One laughs because one can't cry.  But this woman is sitting on the House Financial Services Committee.  She is supposed to help craft the bills that govern our financial system.  And she clearly doesn't have the first shred of an inkling of a clue of how said financial system works.  Her questions had the air of someone who couldn't quite wrap her mind around the complexities of the E-Z Reader consumer activist pamphlets from which she had presumably cribbed them.

That's not really funny.  This is the crack talent that's supposed to reform the banking system into something more robust? 

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Sopranos, uncensored. Long live George Carlin :-)

The other day, it was neat to watch the Mark Twain humorist award program on PBS--too bad that George Carlin was not alive to receive the honor.
Carlin, of course, made seven words really famous.  He would have enjoyed this video that some guy has put together--a very creative one, which reminds viewers what they miss when they watch the Sopranos on A&E .... Simply hilarious.  (No, I am yet to watch even one espisode of Sopranos)

the sopranos, uncensored. from victor solomon on Vimeo.

for those of you watching the sopranos on a&e, here’s what you’re missing.
this is every single curse, from every single episode of the sopranos, ever.

The world could have ended on September 18, 2008

Here is a calm explanation possible only on C-Span--far away from the shoutfest at the news channels.  There was an electronic run on the banks that day, and $550 billion was withdrawn from the money markets within two hours!  
It is a 6-minute clip--watch it with patience, and you will be stunned.    

Here is how the NY Times reported about the meeting that Paulson and Bernanke had with Congressional leaders:

It was a room full of people who rarely hold their tongues. But as the Fed chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, laid out the potentially devastating ramifications of the financial crisis before congressional leaders on Thursday night, there was a stunned silence at first.

Mr. Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. had made an urgent and unusual evening visit to Capitol Hill, and they were gathered around a conference table in the offices of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

“When you listened to him describe it you gulped," said Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York.

As Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut and chairman of the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, put it Friday morning on the ABC program “Good Morning America,” the congressional leaders were told “that we’re literally maybe days away from a complete meltdown of our financial system, with all the implications here at home and globally.”

Mr. Schumer added, “History was sort of hanging over it, like this was a moment.”

When Mr. Schumer described the meeting as “somber,” Mr. Dodd cut in. “Somber doesn’t begin to justify the words,” he said. “We have never heard language like this.”

“What you heard last evening,” he added, “is one of those rare moments, certainly rare in my experience here, is Democrats and Republicans deciding we need to work together quickly.”

Although Mr. Schumer, Mr. Dodd and other participants declined to repeat precisely what they were told by Mr. Bernanke and Mr. Paulson, they said the two men described the financial system as effectively bound in a knot that was being pulled tighter and tighter by the day.

“You have the credit lines in America, which are the lifeblood of the economy, frozen.” Mr. Schumer said. “That hasn’t happened before. It’s a brave new world. You are in uncharted territory, but the one thing you do know is you can’t leave them frozen or the economy will just head south at a rapid rate.”

As he spoke, Mr. Schumer swooped his hand, to make the gesture of a plummeting bird. “You know we’d be lucky ...” he said as his voice trailed off. “Well, I’ll leave it at that.”

As the folks at Motley Fool write:
Britain we know came within 3 hours of utter collapse, and now we see that the U.S. came just as close a month prior! Indeed, the entire world economy came within a day of systemic failure. It makes you wonder... how many hours do we stand from such a scenario at the moment? Further, what warnings can officials from the new administration utilize to influence Congressional votes that could possibly trump those warnings of Paulson and Bernanke on that Thursday evening back in September? These are fascinating and perilous times, and I urge all Fools to keep watching intently. Our modern financial system is gravely ill, and may never recover... 
The C-Span link thanks to Andrew Sullivan for the link to Zero Hedge.  

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