Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Opium and poppies: let's talk!

From an email I received through a listserv:
I am pulling together a special symposium on opium poppy for the 2010 AAG meeting and I was wondering if you know of anyone in the Economic Geography group who might be looking at Afghanistan or on illicit drugs, in particular opium poppy, from an economic geography point of view.
I will watch out for that session at the AAG. BTW, I wonder if there will be show-and-tell presentations :-)

Swine Flu parties? What madness!

Did you hear that a few Brits are throwing Swine Flu parties so that they can gain immunity to it from the infection? According to the BBC:

Dr Jarvis, chairman of the British Medical Association's public health committee, has been working for the Health Protection Agency in the north west to help test, diagnose and treat people who have got swine flu.

He said: "I have heard of reports of people throwing swine flu parties.

"I don't think it is a good idea. I would not want it myself.

"It is quite a mild virus, but people still get ill and there is a risk of mortality."

I suppose these party-organizers have been victims of Britain's notorious mad cow disease!

Legislative pragmatism: or, why the left is unhappy

David Brooks has a neat analysis today: the Obama people have learnt their lessons from Clinton and the Democratic collapse and are making sure that every legislative/policy piece is being led by the Congress.
But the new approach comes with its own shortcomings. To understand them, we have to distinguish between two types of pragmatism. There is legislative pragmatism — writing bills that can pass. Then there is policy pragmatism — creating programs that work. These two pragmatisms are in tension, and in their current frame of mind, Democrats often put the former before the latter.
In other words, this will soon bug the life out of the ultra-left. And, in fact, they have already complained about: the pro-corporate tilt of the bailouts; escalation of war in Afghanistan; the relative inaction on Don't-ask-don't-tell and gay marriage; and, soon, in healthcare.

I differ (or perhaps add) to Brooks with this: Clinton did have to work with a Republican Congress from two years into his term. It was not merely the healthcare fiasco that triggered the loss of Congressional leadership; it was a highly focused "Contract with America" platform led by Newt Gingrich and his allies. One could argue that the Republicans are in such disarray because, among other things, they could not stay true to that Contract. But, that is for another day. In Obama's case, the ultra-left's complaint has been that Obama has elevated legislative pragmatism when he does not really have to, given the huge majorities Democrats have and his own popularity ratings. So, while Clinton had to compromise, does Obama really need to water down his policies?

I suppose these questions are not that different from the conclusion that Brooks draws:

The great paradox of the age is that Barack Obama, the most riveting of recent presidents, is leading us into an era of Congressional dominance. And Congressional governance is a haven for special interest pleading and venal logrolling.

When the executive branch is dominant you often get coherent proposals that may not pass. When Congress is dominant, as now, you get politically viable mishmashes that don’t necessarily make sense.
Brooks need to do one more: combine the dominant (approval rating) executive branch with a dominant (majorities) Congress, with both coming from the same party. Meanwhile, the opposition has no leader, and is in shambles. In such a contemporary scenario, where from comes the mishmash? I think there is no excuse for mishmash.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Bored with the internet :-)

Easiest job in the world?

The Wizard speaketh:
Wizard of Id

That is the caricature. The reality? Far from this. But, a funny cartoon, no doubt :-)

More on Krugman v. Mankiw

I blogged about Krugman's comment on Mankiw's column in the NY Times, in which I noted that the Nobel-winner ought not to take the low road, which he did.
Mankiw has also commented on it. He starts with:
In a brief blog post on healthcare, Paul Krugman says that George Will and I are "either remarkably ignorant or simply disingenuous." I cannot speak for George, but I can attest that I am completely ingenuous. So I suppose I must be remarkably ignorant.
The best would have been if Mankiw had not typed the sentence on how he must be remarkably ignorant. But, that is ok. He then discusses the content, with a bunch of hyperlinks--which is exactly how intellectual discussion ought to happen. At the end, Mankiw writes:
On the issue of tone, I again think I understand Paul's point of view. He likely believes that civility is overrated. He seems to think that in the blogosphere, and perhaps in the public debate more generally, you score points simply by insulting your intellectual adversaries. Sadly, I am afraid he may be right.
Yes, that is the unfortunate case. Krugman, too, seems to have fallen into the attack the person style argument. Now, in case one thought that this was a casual blog post where Krugman made such an observation, well, in his published column he charged opponents of climate-change legislation with "treason." That was simply awful. I mean, to go down that Cheney/Bush/Rove road of labelling dissenters as traitors is not kosher at all.

John Cole notes:

There needs to be some form of one of the corollaries to Godwin’s Law that applies to the word treason, in that anyone who accuses someone of treason for non-treasonous behavior automatically loses the argument. Yes, the climate change deniers are, in my opinion, wrong, and yes, they are making all sorts of ridiculous arguments, but after the last eight years, can everyone just knock it off with the accusations of treason? It is just a loaded term and does no good, and I assure you that even though Krugman is arguing for “treason against the planet” (whatever the hell that means), this will be used to justify future right-wing claims of treason because Dick Durbin mentioned Pol Pot and the US Army in the same hour, or some other nonsense like that.

Christ. Just stop it.

And I say this as someone who is hesitant to criticize Krugman, because every time I pop off at the mouth he turns out to be right.

I am a tad super-sensitive about this because I have simply had it with my colleagues whose preferred option was always the ad hominem route. They have succeeded though in completely silencing me. The success of this route is why university faculty use it, and so do newspaper columnists and Nobel-prize winners. And, of course, that is why the Grand Ayatollah uses it in Iran as well.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Healthcare: Krugman v. Mankiw

I prefer the spelling "healthcare" instead of "health care." Why? The OED has it as "healthcare" and somehow this compound word appeals to me way more than a two-word phrase "health care." However, I do agree that if we say "dental care" then shouldn't this be "health care?" To that question I ask, "since when has the English language been logical?" Remember GBS' comment that "ghoti" should be pronounced as "fish?"
The editors of Healthcare Quarterly have this to say to potential authors:
Note, however, that "healthcare" is one word as both an adjective and a noun.
Digressing is easy, I suppose. So, coming back back to the intent of this post, it is great fun watching from the sidelines two economists duking it out. In his business column, Greg Mankiw explained why he did not favor a public health insurance option. Mankiw's bottom line appears to be that government as a monopsony could drive away the incentives that otherwise attract growth and development in the industry:
a monopsony — a buyer without competitors — can reduce the price it pays below the competitive level by reducing the quantity it demands.This lesson applies directly to the market for health care. If the government has a dominant role in buying the services of doctors and other health care providers, it can force prices down.
To which Krugman responds rather nastily. It is nasty because he does not stick to arguing the points of the case (and there is a great case to be made for the public option) but he editorializes and calls names. Unwarranted. Krugman writes:
To act all wide-eyed and innocent about these problems at this late date is either remarkably ignorant or simply disingenuous.
A Nobel-prize winning public intellectual ought to be a better role model than this. Oh well!

The United Printing Press, er, States of America :-(

Every once in a while, the master manipulator of metaphors, Thomas Friedman, comes up with something really, really good. Like this from his column:

Sometimes, I worry, though, that what oil money is to Russia, our ability to print money is to America. Look at the billions we just printed to bail out two dinosaurs: General Motors and Chrysler.

Lately, there has been way too much talk about minting dollars and too little about minting our next Thomas Edison, Bob Noyce, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Vint Cerf, Jerry Yang, Marc Andreessen, Sergey Brin, Bill Joy and Larry Page. Adding to that list is the only stimulus that matters. Otherwise, we’re just Russia with a printing press.
Hey, give credit where it is due, eh!

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Chinese save because? .... Read this!

I don't think the following explains it all; yet, an interesting point that the NY Times' Floyd Norris brings to our attenion:

In a working paper released by the National Bureau of Economic Research today, two economists, Shang-Jin Wei of Columbia University and Xiaobo Zhang of the International Food Policy Research Institute, note that “By 2005, men outnumbered women at age 25 or below by about 30 million.” In 2007 there were about five boys born for every four girls.

“Families with sons compete with each other to raise their savings rate in response to ever-rising pressure in the marriage market. Competitive saving by these families spills over to greater savings by other families, possibly through raising the prices of nontradable goods such as housing.”

“Across Chinese provinces, there is clear evidence that local savings rates tend to be higher in regions with more unbalanced sex ratios.”

In other words, parents want their sons to marry, and they figure that girls are more likely to want to marry rich boys.

The authors note that while they looked only at China, “other economies known to have a strong sex ratio imbalance include Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore and India. These countries also happen to have high savings rates.”
Maybe in the new academic year, I can bug a few Chinese students about this :-) and, BTW, ever wonder what happens to the money saved? Click here.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

More on the college hype

To a casual reader, and perhaps to any colleague who might wander into this blog, it might be quite a surprise to read my posts on how all over the world we are hyping up the college degree--and this criticism coming from an academic whose job security depends on the hype! When two graduating students asked me to recommend a book for them to read in the transition to their next phase, I suggested Shop Class as Soulcraft.

In a review of this book in the Chronicle, the reviewer writes:

Skilled manual labor is far more cognitive than people realize, Crawford argues, and deserves more respect. That is especially true during tough economic times, when an independent tradesperson can make a decent and dignified living, and — this is important — can't be outsourced. (You can't get your car fixed in China.) "The question of what a good job looks like — of what sort of work is both secure and worthy of being honored — is more open now than it has been for a long time," he writes.

Crawford believes that Americans, in their frenzy to send every kid to college in pursuit of information-age job skills, have lost something valuable. "My sense is that some kids are getting hustled off to college when they'd rather be learning to build things or fix things, and that includes kids who are very smart," he says in an interview.

Crawford's phone has been ringing, and the blogosphere abuzz with lively discussions about working with one's hands, since an excerpt of Shop Class ran in The New York Times Magazine last month.

Quote of the day

For all its diplomatic bluster, Russia is little more than a cantankerous geopolitical gas station, and China is sparing no effort to take direct control of Siberian oil and gas through aggressive corporate buy-ins. Only if Russia wakes up to this reality and turns to the west will the real Nato—and therefore the west—have access to central Asia, let alone the capability to compete with China.
Read the entire essay by Parag Khanna

Iran's revolution: 1999 anyone?

The Economist magazine had an interesting piece a year ago, which I blogged about. I have copied/pasted here; history repeats!

Tortured Iranian escapes to America

From the Economist:

NINE years ago, Ahmad Batebi appeared on the cover of The Economist. He was a 21-year-old student, one of thousands who protested against Iran’s government that summer. He was photographed holding aloft a T-shirt bespattered with the blood of a fellow protester. Soon afterwards, he was arrested and shown our issue of July 17th 1999. “With this”, he was told, “you have signed your death warrant.”

During his interrogation he was blindfolded and beaten with cables until he passed out. His captors rubbed salt into his wounds to wake him up, so they could torture him more. They held his head in a drain full of sewage until he inhaled it. He recalls yearning for a swift death to end the pain. He was played recordings of what he was told was his mother being tortured. His captors wanted him to betray his fellow students, to implicate them in various crimes and to say on television that the blood on that T-shirt was only red paint. He says he refused.

He was sentenced to death for “creating street unrest”. But after a global outcry, the sentence was commuted to 15 years in jail. He speculates that his high profile made it hard to kill him without attracting negative publicity. For two years, he was kept in solitary confinement, in a cell that was little more than a toilet hole with a wooden board on top. He was tortured constantly. Only when he was allowed to mingle with other prisoners again did he begin to overcome his despair.

He suffered a partial stroke that left the right side of his body without feeling. He needed medical attention. The regime did not want to be blamed for him dying behind bars, he says, so he was allowed out for treatment. Three months ago, on the day of the Persian new year, he escaped into Iraq. On June 24th he arrived in America.

He spoke to The Economist on July 7th. Looking at the picture that sparked his ordeal, he says that another man in his place might be angry, but he is not. Mr Batebi is a photographer himself. He says he understands what journalism involves. Had we not published the picture, he says, another paper might have. Looking at the same picture, his lawyer, interpreter and friend Lily Mazahery says she is close to tears: in it, the young Mr Batebi’s pale arms are as yet unscarred by torture.

The protests Mr Batebi took part in nine years ago frightened Iran’s rulers. The students were angry about censorship, the persecution of intellectuals and the thugs who beat up any student overheard disparaging the regime. Mr Batebi thinks Iran could well turn solidly democratic some day. In neighbouring states, religious extremism is popular. In Iran, he says, the government is religiously extreme, but the people are not.

He is cagey about how exactly he escaped. But he says he used a cellphone camera to record virtually every step of his journey, and will soon go public with the pictures and his commentary. Meanwhile, he seems to be enjoying America. He praises the way “people have the opportunity to become who they want to be”. Shortly after he arrived, he posted a picture of himself in front of the Capitol on his Farsi-language blog, with the caption: “Your hands will never touch me again.”

Bumrungrad. Apollo. Healthcare. America?

“We needed a visa to go to India, but not to come here. So, we came to Thailand for medical treatment” said a couple from Dubai, with whom I shared a table while on a cruise-boat down the Chao Phraya River to Bangkok from the historic ruins of Ayutthaya.

After completing the medical procedures, the young husband and wife from Dubai had been vacationing in and around Bangkok for a week, which is when I met them. They very well represent the rapidly growing medical tourism market, into which India has jumped in as well.

The previous day, I spent almost three hours in Bumrungrad Hospital, which is located in one of the busiest areas of Bangkok—not as a patient, but as an observer curious about the globalized healthcare market. The multistoried building is impressive right from the outside. Even the healthy options in the food-court for visitors and families of patients, reflected the multinational customer base with varieties from Lebanese to American foods. And, yes, there is a Starbucks, too!

Bumrungrad is a hospital that offers as much as, or sometimes even more than, what some of the best hospitals in the US have to offer, for much lower fees. Its certification from the Joint Commission International speaks for the quality of medical professionals, technology, and care. In fact, it was the first hospital in Asia to have met the American standards for hospital accreditation.

The success of Bumrungrad, and the potential for an ever expanding international healthcare market, has catalyzed the growth of a similar industry in India also. According to one estimate, India treated about 450,000 foreign patients in 2007 alone. However, reliable data on precise numbers of medical tourists are hard to obtain for a number of reasons; for one, it is quite likely that a foreigner might not want to explicitly state medical treatment as the reason for the visit, because of worries that the visa application will be denied.

Wockhardt Hospital and Apollo Hospitals, with highly qualified staff and some of the latest technologies, are such examples in India. Wockhardt has partnered with Harvard Medical International, while Apollo operates hospitals not only in India but even in Africa. With six of its 43 hospitals having been accredited by JCI, Apollo has the largest number of accredited facilities outside the US. The male half of the Dubai couple remarked that his father prefers going to India because of better service and, interestingly enough, for the tastier foods.

An important aspect of medical tourism is not discussed much here in America—the US was the true pioneer for medical tourism. It used to attract patients from all over the world because of its dominance with the latest and sophisticated healthcare. But now, patients from Asia and Africa can choose from facilities like Bumrungrad or Apollo, which compete to provide American-quality healthcare at lower prices—sometimes even as low as a third of American prices. As with many other products and services, the rest of the world is racing to catch up with America. I am, therefore, less worried about a potential outflow of American patients to Thailand or India, but more concerned that America might have lost her groove.

Finally, medical tourism highlights a profound contradiction—quality healthcare is available for those who are able to afford it, irrespective of where they live, even as many millions lack access to basic healthcare. India’s “Planning Commission” notes that public expenditures are a very small fraction of the total healthcare expenditures. In other words, healthcare is a highly privatized economic activity in India where the number of poor exceeds the entire population of the US. This highly privatized nature immediately implies the poor, who cannot afford to spare a rupee, have practically no healthcare at all.

I suppose to a large extent, the healthcare problems in Thailand or India are no different from what we are struggling with in the US—how to guarantee a minimum level of health coverage to citizens, while making sure that any such framework does not take away the incentives for further progress in the research, development, and provision of advanced healthcare. I hope that we in the US can set a successful example for the rest of the world.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

The hype about a college degree

In the Great Recession, even new nursing grads are not having an easy time to find a job--because the more experienced ones are coming back or working longer hours because of family financial crises. If this is the situation for grads who used to pick and choose from the multiple offers, I am not sure how well a liberal arts grad is faring. For some time now I have been wondering whether we are hyping the college degree way too much--to the effect that we are screwing the very young who need help. This NY Times report adds more:

The pressure to earn a bachelor’s degree draws young people away from occupational training, particularly occupations that do not require college, Mr. Sennett said, and he cited two other factors. Outsourcing interrupts employment before a skill is fully developed, and layoffs undermine dedication to a single occupation. “People are told they can’t get back to work unless they retrain for a new skill,” he said.

None of this deterred Keelan Prados from pursuing a career as a welder, one among roughly 200,000 across the nation. At 28, he has more than a decade of experience, beginning when he was a teenager, building and repairing oil field equipment in his father’s shop in Louisiana. Marriage to a Canadian brought the Pradoses to Maine, near her family. And before Mr. Prados joined Cianbro, an industrial contractor, he ran his own business, repairing logging equipment out of a welding and machine shop on the grounds of his home in Brewer.

The recession dried up that work, and last December, he answered one of Mr. McGrary’s ads. “I welded a couple of pieces of plate together for them and two pipes, and they were impressed,” Mr. Prados said. In less than two weeks, he was at work on Cianbro’s oil refinery project, earning $22 an hour and among the youngest of Mr. McGrary’s hires, most of whom are in their mid-30s to early 40s.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Ayodhya, Ayutthaya, and Babri Masjid

My grandmothers would have been ecstatic if I had visited Ayodhya—but, visiting Ayutthaya may have been good enough for them.

Ayodhya is one of the holiest places in Hinduism. It is located in northern India, not far from the Nepal border, and is believed to be the birth place of the Hindu god Rama—to whom I owe my name!

Like most religious Hindus, my grandmothers immensely valued making a pilgrimage to Ayodhya. Though they were born in small towns—villages back then—my grandmothers made it, unlike their previous generations who could only dream of going there in their lifetimes, but never did because of resource and transport constraints. After all, it is almost a three-thousand mile round trip between their towns and Ayodhya, and travel before the advent of modern transportation would have been extremely challenging.

Ayutthaya is in Thailand and, yes, it was named after Ayodhya. Ayutthaya was founded in 1350, and served as the capital for more than 400 years before it fell to the invading Burmese forces. It is a cruel irony that many a devastating wars have featured in the history of these two neighbors, which are home to millions of followers of Buddha, who preached non-violence!

After the fall of Ayutthaya, Bangkok has been the capital since 1782. The king assumed the official title of “Rama I,” thereby further cementing the symbolic association with Ayodhya. The current king, a jazz aficionado, is Rama IX.

Ayutthaya is about 85 kilometers—about 50 miles for the metric-challenged—from Bangkok. The contrasts are profound. Bangkok is modern, bustling, congested, noisy, dusty, and crowded. Ayutthaya, on the other hand, is everything that Bangkok is not—calm, and with lots of ambulatory space, and feels a tad cooler too. After spending a few hours walking through the ruins, I found it quite easy to imagine the life that once flourished in Ayutthaya during its years of glory.

At least Ayutthaya’s days of battles are over. Ayodhya, however, continues to be a flashpoint because extremist Hindus claim that there ought not to be a mosque—the Babri Masjid—in the piece of land where, it is believed, a temple for Rama once stood.

The spread of Islam, and the arrival of Central Asian Muslim warriors, who founded the successful Moghul Dynasty, resulted in the destruction of more than a few Hindu temples in India, and some that did not face destruction were converted as mosques. The Babri Masjid is from that era, and its name is in honor of Babur, the first of the Moghuls.

The destruction and alteration of property was not anything unusual—historically, it is something that humans have done pretty much in every culture across the planet. Rare would have been the case when the invading forces did everything possible to preserve the “enemy’s” life and property.

However, and unfortunately centuries later, Hindu extremists launched a holy war to restore the temple of Rama. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), through which the extremist Hindu concerns are politically represented, decided to make the converted mosque a big part of their politics. Thus, despite India’s Supreme Court warning against any vandalism and destruction of Babri Masjid, the fanatics from the BJP ended up destroying the mosque in 1992—a horrific act, that severely escalated religious tensions in the country.

I am confident that my grandmothers would have never have supported the destruction of a mosque, despite their devotion to Rama and, therefore, to Ayodhya. It is a tragedy that throughout history we humans have intentionally destroyed our fellow beings and their settlements and, along with that, traditions and cultures. While we might be vaguely familiar with the adage that “Rome was not built in a day”, we do not seem to truly understand that it takes only a short time to destroy that which took years, perhaps even centuries to build.

I am, therefore, delighted that the ruins of Ayutthaya are now one of the five sites in Thailand, among others around the globe, that are listed by UNESCO in the World Heritage List for having “outstanding universal value.” This list is a fantastic way in which we can ensure—to the best of our abilities—the continued existence of priceless and irreplaceable historical treasures that, by themselves, speak volumes of our collective past.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Summer break

Only occasional blog posts until September, though lots of developments in the world to blog about ....

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Laugh it off :-)

From the Independent:
I went to the airport to check in and they asked what I did because I looked like a terrorist. I said I was a comedian. They said, "Say something funny then." I told them I had just graduated from flying school Ahmed Ahmed at C34
I was walking the streets of Glasgow the other week and I saw this sign: "This door is alarmed." I said to myself: "How do you think I feel?" Arnold Brown at The Stand
I went out with an Irish Catholic. Very frustrating. You can take the girl out of Cork... Markus Birdman at the Pod Deco
Q: Who are the most decent people in the hospital? A: The ultrasound people. David O'Doherty at the Gilded Balloon

A word for the graduate

Friday, June 12, 2009

"iPad": Apple's netbook?

I have been drooling for a netbook for almost a year now.... I simply could not justify that purchase though. Meanwhile those suckers are getting more and more attractive, and are selling like crazy.

One idea that I was exploring in my head is apparently almost happening: the idea was whether internet providers would offer free netbooks and hook in customers, just as cell phone providers give away the phone for free and then get us for the services.
Turns out that this is a viable business possibility, according to the Economist:
Some mobile-network operators now throw in free netbooks if subscribers sign up for a mobile-broadband contract. This will put further pressure on prices, since mobile operators have more bargaining power than individual consumers, although it also opens a huge new distribution channel for computer-makers.
Of course, the next step will be the technological merge of cellphones and netbooks. Anyway, the magazine also reports that:
... [Asus], a Taiwanese PC-maker, to develop one of its own, called the Eee PC, which it started selling in late 2007 for $250.

The timing was perfect. A few months later, the credit crunch hit. At the same time, Intel started selling its cheap and power-saving new processor chip, called Atom. By the end of 2008, Asus had sold nearly 5m Eees and all its rivals had jumped on the bandwagon. In total, 21m netbooks will ship this year, almost twice the number in 2008 and more than 15% of the entire market for laptops, according to Gartner, a market-research firm.

Cousin Travis graduates!

Geography about understanding relationships between, among areas

Could it be true that only real estate agents and geographers seem to understand the importance of location, location and location?

I asked the students in one of my classes whether they considered Iraq and Iran as important enough for Americans to know more about. There was no hesitation — students unanimously and loudly voiced their affirmatives.

I interrupted their enthusiastic comments by handing out blank outline maps of the Middle East and directed them to identify as many countries as they possibly could. Well, it turns out that the familiarity that the class had about Iraq, Iran and Saddam Hussein did not lead to a spatial understanding of that part of the world.

After pointing out the countries at the end of the exercise, I directed them to look at Sudan and Ethiopia. As they kept staring at the countries on the map, perhaps for the first time in their lives, it became apparent to them that it is a relatively narrow body of water, the Red Sea, that separates these countries from a larger contiguous land area that we refer to as the Middle East.

For all purposes, Sudan and Ethiopia are, hence, only a metaphorical stone's throw away from Saudi Arabia, yet Ethiopia is imagined as somewhere in a remote part of Africa.

Of course, geography is not about memorizing maps or random and trivial facts about places. It is about understanding relationships — such as economic or political relationships — between and among geographic areas. Such a framework, though, begins with knowing the actual location of a place and its relationship with its surroundings. After all, if we didn't know where exactly Ethiopia is, would we really be able to understand why that country seems to have so many problems?

The author and public intellectual Susan Jacoby, notes an interesting aspect of Roosevelt's "fireside chats." He urged Americans to buy maps of the world and then follow along with him details of the World War II battles that he "chatted" about in his radio addresses — with specific references to the geographic areas.

Roosevelt may have had in mind what a student in my class articulated in her journal assignment after the class exercise. She wrote: "One thing that stood out to me this week was ... I find that I get so caught up in these abstract, revolutionary concepts of how the world should be better without ever even taking into account what the world actually looks like."

In the contemporary world, too, America is actively engaged in the international arena. To play a constructive role, we citizens need to be informed enough in order to be able to convey to elected leaders the changes we would like to make.

Fortunately, unlike F.D.R.'s era, we now live in a world in which information is freely and easily accessible. This ease of obtaining information is all the more reason educators like me want our students (and the general populace) to understand the world and appreciate the importance of location.

Perhaps add a world atlas to your summer reading list?

Published in the Statesman Journal, June 12, 2009. Note: I added the map for this blog post.

More on debts and deficits ....

A follow-up to seeing nothing but red ...
The Economist notes that:
New figures from economists at the IMF suggest that the public debt of the ten leading rich countries will rise from 78% of GDP in 2007 to 114% by 2014. These governments will then owe around $50,000 for every one of their citizens (see article)
Say what?
So, what does the Economist say that we ought to do?

All told the outlook is bleak. In a few countries, the financial crisis has badly damaged the public finances. Elsewhere it has accelerated a chronic age-related deterioration. Everywhere the short-term fiscal pain is much smaller than the long-term mess that lies ahead. Unless belts are tightened by several notches, real interest rates are sure to rise, as will the risk premiums on many governments’ debt. Economic growth will suffer and sovereign-debt crises will become more likely.

Somehow, governments have to avoid such a catastrophe without killing the recovery by tightening policy too soon. Japan made that mistake when concerns about its growing public debt led its government to increase the consumption tax in 1997, which helped to send the economy back into recession. Yet doing nothing could have much the same effect, because investors’ fears about fiscal sustainability will push up bond yields, which also could stifle the recovery.

The best way out is to tackle the costs of ageing head-on by, for instance, raising retirement ages further. That would brighten the medium-term fiscal outlook without damaging demand now. Broadly, spending cuts should be preferred to tax increases. And rather than raise tax rates, governments would do better to improve their tax codes, broadening the base and eliminating distortive loopholes (such as preferential treatment of housing). Other priorities will vary from one country to the next. But after today’s borrowing binge, doing nothing is no longer an option.

That bottom line is what I like the best: "doing nothing is no longer an option." But, rushing to do something could also make things worse. Hmmm, what do they say about a rock and a hard place?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

All I see is red :-(

I don't mean a commie red or pink. I mean a deficit red ink.

I cannot understand how we might possibly keep going with federal deficits--not over five or ten years, but over an entire generation! What could be the logic behind this madness? Click here for an analysis related to the graph on the left.

Robert Reich offers this explanation:
First, some background: Deficit and debt numbers mean nothing in and of themselves. They take on meaning only in relation to something else. And the most important something else, in terms of deciding whether the nation can afford such deficits or debts, is the size of the national economy.

Pay close attention, in particular, to the debt/GDP ratio. True, that ratio is heading in the wrong direction right now. It may reach 70 percent by the end of 2010. That’s high, but it’s not high compared to the 120 percent it was in 1946, after the ravages of Depression and war.

Over time, the basic way America has reduced the debt/GDP ratio is by growing the U.S. economy. GDP growth makes even large debts manageable. When the economy is cooking, more people have jobs and better wages. So they pay more taxes. And they require less unemployment assistance and other social insurance. That’s why it’s so important now, in the depths of depression, that government, as purchaser of last resort, steps in and runs large deficits. Without large deficits this year and next, and perhaps the year after, the economy doesn’t have a prayer of getting back on a growth path, and the debt/GDP ratio could really get ugly.
Yes, sounds good in theory. But, while I don't have the data handy, wasn't it also the case that in 1946 taxation rates were much higher, and entitlements were much lower? Contrast that with the current anti-tax but gimme, gimme mentality. It does not make sense that growing the economic pie will also magically make the deficits less scary.

Can't make any sense of this madness ..... oh well!

U.S. recognizing links between Afghanistan and Pakistan

Slowly and steadily we are beginning to recognize the geopolitical importance of a stable Pakistan. President Obama’s administration now operates with a more nuanced “AfPak” approach, fully recognizing that Afghanistan and Pakistan need to be tackled together.

Iran shares a long border with Afghanistan. Iran and Pakistan are also neighbors, with a border that simmers with its own set of ethnic disputes, religious tensions and drug trafficking.

The best way to understand the Iran-Pakistan border issues is to start with one of the most under-reported stories from two weeks ago. At least 20 people were killed, and more than 50 were injured, when a bomb exploded in a mosque in the city of Zahedan in Iran. Zahedan is the capital of Iran’s southeastern province of Sistan-Balochistan, and the city is practically at the junction of the borders with Afghanistan and Pakistan.

At least three aspects of this bombing deserve our attention.

First, this part of Iran has a predominant Sunni population in a country that is otherwise majority Shiite. Keep in mind that Iran and Iraq are home to Shiite Muslims, while surrounded by Sunni majority countries.

Second, the explosion came only a few days before the presidential elections, which are scheduled for Friday. Further, the explosion occurred only three days after a historic trilateral meeting in Tehran of the presidents of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Third, and most important, a group called Jundallah claimed responsibility for this blast. Jundallah, which means “soldiers of Allah,” has gained strength in the post-Sept. 11 years. Jundallah claims to be fighting the Iranian government to secure equal rights for the Sunni and the Baloch people.

The Balochs are spread across the modern boundaries of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. In Pakistan, the largest province — in terms of land area — is Balochistan, where about half of the 10 million population is ethnically Baloch.

During the days of the empire on which the sun never set, the British were more interested in protecting the “jewel in the crown” — the Indian subcontinent — and, therefore, treated the unconquerable Afghanistan and the territory of the Balochs as a buffer against the threat of an expanding Russia.

When the British created Pakistan in 1947, Balochistan remained quasi-independent until 1948, when it was annexed into Pakistan. A feeling of second-class treatment has slowly led to the emergence of a significant Baloch militant movement. The Pakistani government has no control over 10 percent or more of Balochistan, land that is now under the control of separatists.

The Balochs are yet another aspect of intricate relationships among Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The bombing in Zahedan was not the first time that Jundallah struck in Iran. The significant difference when compared to its violence the last few years is that Jundallah almost always targeted Iran’s security forces and other officers of the government.

Until the recent mosque bombing, never have such a large number of civilians fallen victim to Jundallah.

To add another layer of complexity: Iran has consistently viewed this militant organization as one that has support from Pakistan and the United States.

Iran alleges that the U.S. aids Jundallah — directly or through Pakistan. Of course, Iran has no evidence to support these allegations.

So, what do all these mean? It took us almost eight years after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, to understand that stabilizing the situation in Afghanistan is of utmost importance, and that Pakistan is linked to this in many ways. Over the same period, Pakistan has come apart to such an extent that we are now worried about it becoming a failed state with nuclear arms.

I hope that our leaders have a clear understanding of the limits of our involvement in AfPak so that we do not end up staying there even one day longer than we absolutely have to. And, I certainly hope that we will not enlarge our engagement into the Iranian issues.

For The Register-Guard

Posted to Web: Wednesday, Jun 10, 2009 05:44PM
Appeared in print: Thursday, Jun 11, 2009, page A7

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Who wants to be an academic?

I have never considered being an academic as a 9-to-5 job. It is not about collective-bargaining for wages and working conditions. It is simply a way of life. Being an academic is not that different from the older historical traditions of a teacher/guru whose life was quite monastic. Dan Drezner has an interesting three-question "sorting hat" test for this:

For those academic wannabes out there, here's a simple three-question survey to help guide you through this very important choice:

A) You are happiest when you see your name:

  1. Mentioned on television.
  2. Tagged on Facebook.
  3. Listed in the acknowledgments of an obscure article written by a former professor for whom you were an RA.

B) It is 2 AM on Saturday morning. You are:

  1. Asleep.
  2. Still out partying.
  3. Feeling an odd compulsion to catch up on Arts & Letters Daily.

C) Which of the following phrases gets you the most excited?

  1. "This job offer comes with a 401(k)."
  2. "I scored two tickets to the Red Sox game."
  3. "Your paper has been accepted without revision."

If your answer to all of the above was (3), then yeah, you're pretty much doomed fated to trying out academia.

Of course, Drezner is looking at an academic at a research university. But, hey, I am there with the compulsion to catch up on A&L Daily. I am used to A&L for so many years now .... In fact, even the link to Drezner's comments was thanks to A&L Daily :-)

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Obama scales back goals for America

No more "one million hybrid cars by 2015" because he "overestimated the American people"

Obama Drastically Scales Back Goals For America After Visiting Denny's

More on fixing schools and colleges

So, it is open season on fixing the mess in higher education, and K-12. This was the latest NY Times op-ed in this topic.

I disagree with the op-ed author (Harold Levy) for a whole bunch of reasons:
  • I cannot believe that Levy would want to raise the age limit for compulsory education to 19. For better or worse, we already have 18 as the age when a kid becomes a legal adult. (of course, for alcohol they don't become adults until 21! that is another issue by itself.) The last thing I want to do is tell 18-year olds that they are not adults yet, and that we are going to tell them what they ought to do. To quite an extent, extending the compulsory education is almost the same as compulsory military service that a few countries have for their citizens. Compelling adults to do anything is not my idea of a free society.
  • I have already made my point in an op-ed that longer school year is not a panacea. There are a number of other issues with K-12 that need fixing. For instance, studies have shown that children need sleep, more so teenagers. Yet, by starting the school day at 8:00, and in some places as early as 7:00, we rudely interrupt their sleep and pack them off to school. I am yet to meet a teacher who does not complain how most students practically sleep through the first and second periods. We continue with this schedule because it fits the parents' work schedule. When I was a kid, our school started at 9:00 am!
  • Everybody talks about the long summer break, including Obama. I hate long summer breaks, which is one major reason why I teach summer school. It makes me less productive if I have that kind of a break. Which is also why I don't see myself taking a long sabbatical also. However, I do not want to force students into more schooling. I would rather lengthen the winter break by one more week, and have a longer spring time break, and thus shorten the summer break without adding more school days. Again, I think we won't do such things because it will interfere with the parents' work commitments.
    I tell you, we are screwing the kids because of what will be a good schedule for parents, and then we blame the kids for not doing well. Nice game we have going :-)
  • Levy's argument on truancy is the weakest of all his weak arguments. This way exceeds my threshold for how much society should take over parenting. I will leave it at that.
  • One of the groundwork laying items that Levy lists is "losing the advertising wars to for-profit colleges". And, what he in turn proposes is nothing but how public colleges and universities ought to behave like those for-profit colleges. Which means, Levy and I have a serious disagreement on the very purpose of higher education itself.
    When I criticize higher education, my concern is that we are promising students high economic rewards, but then screwing them up. I want full disclosure to students that there is no guarantee of productive employment upon graduation. I also want to emphasize to students that higher education is not about employment skills, but about something less tangible and more profound. Instead, we are currently playing a shell game of conveniently offering either of these explanations as bait and switch. When students worry about jobs, we tell them that higher ed is about more than jobs. But then we pummel them with how higher educated people on an average earn more. Of course, the world has conveniently raised the minimum education for even mindless routine jobs ....
  • Levy's comments on making accreditation is a waste. Because, hey, the entire accreditation process was a joke at our own university. It is a fantastic process if done correctly and I completely believe in self-study-based-accreditation. However, in its current structure most colleges and universities simply play the accreditation game, which is a shame. And, it cheats the public with whom we colleges and universities have a social contract.
If only I ruled the world :-)

Monday, June 08, 2009

Email of the day :-) :-)

From a student whose name I have withheld:
I'm all done with school now. Its a good feeling!
Thanks for an interesting class this term. I can honestly tell you it was one of the ones that I talked about the most with my husband. The other day at dinner I was discussing my paper, and he said "I wish I would have taken a class like this in college, you make it sound really interesting."
Thanks again,

It makes it all worthwhile. My thanks to students who have made this year, too, a wonderfully rewarding year.

Already looking forward to the next set of students :-)

Guantanamo: a (US) state-sponsored madrassa!

I continue to have mixed feelings about Guantanamo, as I wrote earlier.
As always, I am simply impressed with how articulate Christopher Hitchens can be, and this time it is about Guantanamo. I mean, consider this sentence:
To the huge list of reasons to close down Guantanamo, add this: It's a state-sponsored madrassa.
Awesome. How powerful those few words strung together are! Hitchens' point is:
Suppose that you were a secular or unfanatical person caught in the net by mistake; you would still find yourself being compelled to pray five times a day (the guards are not permitted to interrupt), to have a Quran in your cell, and to eat food prepared to halal (or Sharia) standards. I suppose you could ask to abstain, but, in such a case, I wouldn't much fancy your chances. The officers in charge were so pleased by this ability to show off their extreme broad-mindedness in respect of Islam that they looked almost hurt when I asked how they justified the use of taxpayers' money to create an institution dedicated to the fervent practice of the most extreme version of just one religion.
And this is the same mentality that Hitchens says is the problem when it comes to Obama's big speech at Cairo--by "respecting" the traditions and practices of religions (in this case, Islam) what if we are accomplices?
Take the single case in which our president touched upon the best-known fact about the Islamic "world": its tendency to make women second-class citizens. He mentioned this only to say that "Western countries" were discriminating against Muslim women! And how is this discrimination imposed? By limiting the wearing of the head scarf or hijab (a word that Obama pronounced as hajib—imagine the uproar if George Bush had done that). The clear implication was an attack on the French law that prohibits the display of religious garb or symbols in state schools. Indeed, the following day in Paris, Obama made this point even more explicitly. I quote from an excellent commentary by an Algerian-American visiting professor at the University of Michigan Law School, Karima Bennoune, who says:

I have just published research conducted among the many people of Muslim, Arab and North African descent in France who support that country's 2004 law banning religious symbols in public schools which they see as a necessary deployment of the "law of the republic" to counter the "law of the Brothers," an informal rule imposed undemocratically on many women and girls in neighborhoods and at home and by fundamentalists.

(Click here for more of professor Bennoune's work.)

But to the women who are compelled to dress according to the requirements of others, Obama had nothing to say at all, as if the only "right" at stake were the right to obey an instruction that is, in fact—if it matters—not found in the Quran.
I am ok with Hitchens bringing these issues up because he beats up on any and all religions--so, it is not as if he has some agenda to promote one religion while critiquing another. I suppose Hitchens' only fault in this context was how much of a warmonger he was .... if only he had been less hawkish!

ps: in case you are wondering what the heck a madrassa is, well, click here. and here for hijab v. chador

Sunday, June 07, 2009

More on Obama's Cairo speech: fatigue!

At a dinner at a friend's place, I commented that Obama's speech was perhaps more well received in the West than in the Middle East. I am actually tired of his big speeches; of course, the problems are immense and varied, and big speeches maybe needed. But, I think I am developing Obama fatigue. It will be neat if for a few days he can kind of lie low and let others do the speechifying!

I agree with the following comment in Cohen's column in the NY Times:
“Some of his sentences and paragraphs are a little complicated for the average listener. It sounds as though he thinks he’s speaking to the M.I.T. faculty or the New York Times editorial board.”

And how about this also from Cohen:
All the rhetorical groundwork the president has now laid — on Iran, Israel-Palestine, the Muslim world — will come to nothing if high principle is not matched by street-smart cunning and maneuver. Obama’s got to get off the podium and down into the bazaar if he’s going to come home with the goods.
Yep. This is what I was telling my friends at the dinner table. Which is also why I do not agree with Friedman's comment that it is not Obama but the Middle East countries that ought to act; Friedman writes:
“It’s not what he says, but what he does,” many said. No, ladies and gentlemen of the Middle East, it is what he says and what you do and what we do.

Finally, sports world back to normal :-)

Three events on the same day--a phenomenal trifecta of sorts--that make me feel like it is time to relax because the "old friends" are back with wins.
  • First it was Roger Federer at the French Open
  • Then it was Tiger Woods charging from way back to win it
  • and, finally, the Lakers restoring order in the NBA.
Way back, in the summer after completing my first year as a graduate student in a new country, I headed to Venezuela with a few fellow-grad students to work on a research project. It was a learning experience for me in a number of different ways--including appreciating the finesse and poetry that Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul Jabbar displayed on the court, with some fantastic support from their teammates: James Worthy, Byron Scott, and AJ Green, in particular. I don't care much for the hanging by the rim, and would much rather watch intelligence and real team approach on the court.

Anyway, soon after, I fell hook, line, and sinker for the Dodgers thanks to Kirk Gibson's too-good-to-believe homerun while hobbling on a worthless leg, and the sheer superiority of Hershiser's pitching. So far, this year the Dodgers are doing well, despite Manny Ramirez's antics with drugs.

Is it too early to sing "happy days are here again?" :-)

More on unemployment--the horrors ahead :-(

Derek Thompson:
In the graph below, which compares unemployment in the early 80s, early 90s and the current crisis (we're red), the vertical axis is unemployment rate. The numbers along the horizontal axis are the number of months since the recession started.

Friday, June 05, 2009

20 percent unemployment, but gas prices rise?

Two months ago, I blogged about the real unemployment rate at 15.6 percent. This is the overall rate of unemployment, also referred to as the U-6 measure. One of my favorite urban researchers/blogger, Richard Florida, writes that it is now at 16.4 percent.
(U-6 is total unemployed, plus all marginally attached workers, plus total employed part time for economic reasons, as a percent of the civilian labor force plus all marginally attached workers.)

So, let us do some crude math. The national unemployment rate is at 9.4 percent, but the U-6 measure is at 16.4 percent.
In Oregon, unemployment is at 12 percent. Which means, it is not unreasonably to think of Oregon's U-6 measure to be at 20 percent. This is some Great Recession!

But, here is what I don't get: why are oil prices increasing this rapidly then? For crying out loud, it oil prices broke the $70 mark for the first time since the phenomenal plunge last year. The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that the jump in oil prices is not because of an anticipated fast global economic growth. Instead, it is because (a) investors are betting on it, as much as they bet on share prices, and (b) the dollar is losing value, and oil exporters always raise prices to factor in the loss in the greenback's worth.

On March 4th, I euro got 1.2555 dollars. The latest? 1 euro = 1.4177 dollars. That is 16 percent in three months. No wonder then that Geithner is on a mission to convince the Chinese that the dollar is ok. And Bernanke is worried about the deficits. Hey guys, talk up the dollar.

General Motors is now Government Motors!!!

Says Greg Mankiw:
Here is what President Obama said about the GM restructuring:
What we are not doing -- what I have no interest in doing -- is running GM. GM will be run by a private board of directors and management team with a track record in American manufacturing that reflects a commitment to innovation and quality. They -- and not the government -- will call the shots and make the decisions about how to turn this company around. The federal government will refrain from exercising its rights as a shareholder in all but the most fundamental corporate decisions. When a difficult decision has to be made on matters like where to open a new plant or what type of new car to make, the new GM, not the United States government, will make that decision.

In short, our goal is to get GM back on its feet, take a hands-off approach, and get out quickly.
Very well put. Apparently, however, the president's congressional allies did not get the memo. Today's Boston Globe reports:

Frank intervention extends life of GM's Norton center

General Motors Corp. will delay the closing of a Norton parts distribution center it planned to shutter by the end of the year, according to US Representative Barney Frank. The extension will temporarily preserve about 80 jobs....

The plant manager received word yesterday that Frank had successfully lobbied GM chief executive Fritz Henderson to delay the closing....

Frank, whose district includes Norton, said he told Henderson, "Look, I understand that these things have to happen but they don't have to happen in the midst of the worst recession in years."

Will the Obama administration call Congressman Frank and ask him to refrain from further politicization of GM business decisions? Or will it put aside its principles and defer to Congress on these matters?

So, does this mean that just as we have an "independent" base closing commission, we will soon have an independent and bipartisan commission on which auto dealerships to close, and which auto factories to close? Lordy lord!!!

States running out of money. Oregon, too!

Notice in this graphic from the NY Times, the HUGE drop in corporate income taxes in Oregon :-( Downright scary. Add that the drop in personal income tax collected, well, so long and farewell to any possible improvement in the condition of higher education here in Oregon.

But, if one political notion is that a crisis is nothing but an opportunity for fundamental reforms, then now is the best time to overhaul higher education. Everything from how we do general education (which is atrocious) to how we structure majors and minors (equally atrocious) to how we have reduced higher education as all about faculty pursuing their own petty little interests (the worst of all) .... And, oh, maybe this is also the time for many, many, graduate programs to downsize or even close down: it is a crime to implicitly promise students that a graduate degree will get them jobs, and then for these MA and PhDs to later find out that there is practically nothing out there. There, is that a good list to start with? :-)

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Iran, the 1953 CIA plot, Obama, and the Cairo speech

I have no idea how President Obama's speech in Cairo will play out in the next few days and months. I am tired of the pundits on TV and in the blogs commenting as if they can see the future. Hogwash! I say this because I distinctly recall how Western pundits predicted the collapse of India after Indira Gandhi was assassinated. It did not happen. Later when the Tamil Tigers assassinated Rajiv Gandhi, Western pundits predicted chaos in India. Didn't happen. In this case, it is not as if the entire Muslim population is one country--yes, there is a concept of "umma". But, hello, ethnic, tribal, nationalistic sentiments mean that what is good for Indonesia might not be good for Iran.

Speaking of Iran, the Iranian media seem to be taking particular interest in this one paragraph in the President's speech:
For many years, Iran has defined itself in part by its opposition to my country, and there is in fact a tumultuous history between us. In the middle of the Cold War, the United States played a role in the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government. Since the Islamic Revolution, Iran has played a role in acts of hostage-taking and violence against U.S. troops and civilians. This history is well known. Rather than remain trapped in the past, I've made it clear to Iran's leaders and people that my country is prepared to move forward. The question now is not what Iran is against, but rather what future it wants to build.
The big headline at one Iranian site:
Barack admits US role in 1953 Iran coup
I suppose Mahmoud and Barack are chums now for the President to be referred to by his first name :-)
But, seriously, I wonder how this will play out when Ahmedinajad's political future is to be decided at the polls only a week from now. Could it be interpreted by voters as that the President is truly apologetic for some zany actions during the Cold War, and that only by throwing out Ahmedinajad can they begin to start working with the US? Or, could they think that this apology came about only because of a potential nuclear bomb and, therefore, to become a real player Iran needs that nuke after all? In which case they will swing in favor of Ahmedinajad?

Obama is shrewd, and he has lots of talented people helping him out. I am sure they thought through such scenarios as they parsed every sentence of his speech. I can't quite make up my mind on what the impact will be. But, here is the thing: it was also a special day in Iran--the 20th anniversary of Ayatollah Khomeini's death. And note what his successor, Ayatollah Khamenei said:
He said the US remained "deeply hated" in the region and "beautiful and sweet" words would not change that.
He told the huge crowd at the mausoleum of his predecessor, Ayatollah Khomenei, that action was needed not words.

That speech was a few hours before Obama's speech in Cairo.

Another aspect of the timing of the speech that worries me: why did they choose Thursday? Fridays are important prayer days for Muslims, and many imams routinely use their pulpit to talk about the political issues--particularly in the highly volatile Middle Eastern countries. At least the impression from the outside is that these imams are highly Islamist, and support militancy. Won't this Thursday speech then make it convenient for those imams to make a big deal out of small issues?

I suppose I am a very, very cautious optimist.

Dick (Cheney) Uncut.

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Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Coming soon: high oil prices

Cue that disturbing background theme music from Jaws for this news item from the Guardian:
Saudi Arabia warned today that the world could be facing another oil shock, with prices back above the record highs of almost $150 a barrel within two to three years.

The comments from the Saudi oil minister at an energy summit in Rome were echoed by the IMF, both blaming lower prices and the global recession for hampering investment in new capacity.

Prices have fallen back from the peak they reached last year, largely because of the fall in demand in the downturn, and are hovering at about $60 a barrel.

"We are maintaining our long-term focus rather than being swayed by the volatility of short-term conditions," said the Saudi oil minister, Ali al-Naimi, ahead of an Opec meeting in Vienna on Thursday. "However, if others do not begin to invest similarly in new capacity expansion projects, we could see within two to three years another price spike similar to or worse than what we witnessed in 2008."

He said low prices and weak demand had discouraged investment in energy projects. Those problems had been compounded by high development costs, tight credit markets and energy policies that are focused on alternative fuel sources.

IMF first deputy managing director John Lipsky said: "With long time-to-build lags, significant setbacks to oil investment today could set the stage for future sharp price increases."

Meanwhile, there is a growing worry that a fast recovery might lead to very rapid increases in the price of oil, which will then push us back into a nasty recession all over again. I think we are screwed!

Save the males

A few years ago, I remember reading a lengthy essay by Christina Sommers in the Atlantic, on how girls were outperforming boys in school. I asked my daughter, who was then in high school, what she thought of that argument. Her response was essentially something like, "duh!"

Left leaning faculty don't like Sommers though. But, then left leaning faculty do not like any kind of dissenting opinion anyway. (Don't know about right leaning faculty--they are so few that it is a rare opportunity to even spot on, leave alone have a conversation with them!) So, the result is that instead of engaging in discussions on the content, well, .....

After I returned to academe, I have been only in teaching institutions. And in both the universities I have been--in Oregon and in California--female students outnumber males by 2:1. In the Honors Program, well, let me put it this way: one student commented that perhaps we ought to recruit male students with the tag line that they will get to meet lots of females if they joined Honors :-)

Which is why I am not at all surprised with this graph from Mark Perry.

All the more I think there is more than simple laugh line in save the males.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Karl Marx, GM and Chrysler. More than surreal!

The workers are now, finally, significant owners of the means of production. The United Auto Workers control about 65 percent of Chrysler and 17.5 percent of General Motors.
Daniel Gross has, as always, an engaging column. The ending is even better:
A shrinking union accepts stakes in shrinking companies. It promises not to strike. The governance system muffles the union's voice by restricting its board presence. It sounds like an arrangement a union-hater like Jack Welch would have cooked up.

The No Asshole Rule :-)

Hey, don't blame me for the title for this post; it is the title of a book :-) The full title is: The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t. The author is Robert Sutton, who is Professor of Management Science and Engineering in the Stanford Engineering School.

I was reading this essay on "Defending Collegiality", which was triggered by The No Asshole Rule, where I found a reference to an article on collegiality. So, of course, I followed-up on that. I liked that essay by Linda Hutcheon, who is a University Professor of Literature at the University of Toronto. I liked these sentences the best:
At stake here is more than the quality of our daily communal life; what we see ourselves doing as professionals is affected. We are critical thinkers; we value dissent. But must rigorous critical thinking be reduced to its simplest and easiest form: attack and destroy? We treasure subtlety in other things, why not here? We know from observing the political realm that destructive disputation does not require careful and serious listening, reading, or even thinking. If we do choose to listen, read, and think with care, we might see what we share as well as where we differ. If we make fewer assertions and ask more questions, there may be more room for an intellectual form of collegiality. We need to feel more comfortable entertaining others’ positions on any given topic without thinking ourselves less rigorous for that. In other words, there is value to entering imaginatively another’s claim rather than simply opposing it. To reject out of hand is to fail intellectually: it is simply too easy.
I suppose the audience I would like to target here, and remind them about Hutcheon's remarks, will never be subscribers to this blog :-)

Tiananmen Square: Twenty years ago

In 1979, Deng Xiaoping opened up China to the global economy. Ten years later, there were protests for political openness too. Which is when we watched on television the remarkably surreal video of a lone man standing up to a column of military tanks.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Swine flu versus tuberculosis

Hans Rosling points out the hype about Swine Flu, even as thousands continue to die from TB infections that are treatable. Rosling is one amazing character--a couple of years ago, as broadband speeds picked up, I started using his videos in my classes. Unfortunately, most of my students don't seem to be impressed by the data, analysis, and stories Rosling has to say.

GM is an "economic Vietnam"

We should be concerned lest GM become a kind of economic Vietnam, where the federal government throws good money after bad, year after year, in a vain quest for victory.
Leave it to Richard Posner for clear thinking, and clear writing. Though am not always inclined to agree with him, in this case I am just convinced that Posner is correct.

Add prisoners to the unemployed? Higher unemployment!

Outsourced to one of my favorite bloggers, Megan McArdle:
John Quiggin has been arguing it is. That's why he wants to add America's higher incarceration rate to its unemployment statistics when comparing us to Europe.

To my surprise, when I proposed this theory to Mark Kleiman a while back, he disagreed. Crime is only very weakly correlated with changes in the labor market. It spiked during the golden age of unskilled employment in the 1950s and 1960s, and then fell for no particular reason during the poor labor market of the early 1990s. Crime is a labor market outcome in the sense that people with poor impulse control gravitate towards a "job" that requires little in the way of gratification delay, not in the sense that people who end up in jail literally had no alternatives, or even no better alternatives. In the normal operation of the American economy, most people who want a job can find something. Given the low probability-weighted returns to crime, often even something better than sticking up 7-11s.

There are other problems with the theory. Even if crime were a labor market outcome, incarceration is a policy outcome, not a labor market outcome, because incarceration has increased even as crime has fallen. Furthermore, what correlation there is between crime and the economy is to property crimes--burglary, etc. Violent crime, which accounts for more than half of America's incarceration rate, and virtually all of the change in our incarceration rate since 1980, isn't clearly related to the economy. In theory, being laid off might make you more prone to bar fights or beating on your girlfriend. In practice, it doesn't seem to show up in the numbers.

Now, one could argue that high incarceration rates are supressing the unemployment figures. But America's employment-to-population ratio is still higher than Europe's, though a number of individual European countries do better than we do.

Take things seriously. And tell the truth.

A long time ago, like many of my contemporaries, I too read Nineteen Eighty-Four while in high school. I don't think I quite understood the phenomenally profound importance of what George Orwell was conveying there. Later I watched a movie version of it at the British Council in Madras (yes, it was Madras then!) The visualization of the message, and the fact that I was older, drove home the message a lot more this time.

Animal Farm plus 1984 is one lethal combination of ideas and arguments. One of my other favorites is his essay on the usage of the English language. Orwell had a pretty simple bottom line: use simple words and simple sentences. Took me a long time to understand that message and practice it :-)

In a recent essay in the New Statesman, I liked the following comments:

It is interesting that Orwell did not go to university. He went to Eton, but loafed around there and, afterwards, went off to Burma as a police officer. University is where you sometimes get loaded up with fancy terms whose meaning you’re not quite sure of. Orwell was an intellectual and a highbrow who thought Joyce, Eliot and Lawrence were the greatest writers of his age, but he never uses fancy terms.

You could say that Orwell was not essentially a literary critic, or that he was the only kind of literary critic worth reading. He was most interested in the way that literature intersects with life, with the world, with groups of actual people. Some of his more enjoyable essays deal with things that a lot of people read and consume – postcards, detective fiction, “good bad books” (and poetry) – simply because a lot of people consume them.

Postwar intellectuals would celebrate (or bemoan) the “rise of mass culture”. Orwell never saw it as a novel phenomenon. He was one of the first critics to take popular culture seriously because he believed it had always been around and simply wanted attention. These essays are part of a deeply democratic commitment to culture in general and reading in particular.


He was not, as Lionel Trilling once pointed out, a genius; he was not mysterious; he had served in Burma, washed dishes in a Parisian hotel, and fought for a few months in Spain, but this hardly added up to a life of adventure; for the most part he lived in London and reviewed books. So odd, in fact, has the success of Orwell seemed to some that there is even a book, George Orwell: the Politics of Literary Reputation, devoted to getting to the bottom of it.

When you return to his essays of the 1940s, the mystery evaporates. You would probably not be able to write this way now, even if you learned the craft: the voice would seem put-on, after Orwell. But there is nothing put-on about it here, and it seems to speak, despite the specificity of the issues discussed, directly to the present. In Orwell’s clear, strong voice we hear a warning. Because we, too, live in a time when truth is disappearing from the world, and doing so in just the way Orwell worried it would: through language. We move through the world by naming things in it, and we explain the world through sentences and stories. The lesson of these essays is clear: Look around you.

Describe what you see as an ordinary observer – for you are one, you know – would see them. Take things seriously.

And tell the truth. Tell the truth.

Thanks to A&L Daily for the link.

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