Monday, January 31

The Inevitability of Social Security Reform

economicprincipals cites "a mild-mannered professor of economics at Harvard University named Martin Feldstein" as the "expert opinion" behind Bush's proposed Social Security reform, and notes that Feldstein has recently
recommended a combination of forced individual accounts and government insurance for all the major forms of social insurance - not just personal retirement accounts, but medical savings accounts and unemployment insurance as well. If ever there was an intellectual blueprint for the "ownership society," this was it.
One reason Feldstein is pushing the reform is the negative effect that a generous retirement insurance program might have on individual savings. economicprincipals also notes,
By the 1990s, even leading Democrats had begun to chime in on the virtue of adding a thin layer of personal investment accounts on top of the existing system, N.Y. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and University of Michigan Edward "Ned" Gramlich (who chaired a Social Security panel ten years ago) among them. And President Bill Clinton himself tentatively embraced the idea of investing some social security taxes in the stock market, instead of parking them in government bonds. But no Democrat has expressed any willingness to alter the most salient underlying characteristic of the current system, which is the income transfer from the well-to-do to the poor implicit in its guarantee to provide all retirees with a certain reasonable level of benefits regardless of how little they have saved or how long they live.
So what's the problem?
The haste with which Bush is trying to stampede his party to a vote with a phony Social Security "crisis" is strongly reminiscent of his ill-considered campaign in Iraq. The administration's "Hail Mary" tactics, if they are implemented, are as likely to backfire just as badly in the domestic arena as in its ill-conceived occupation of Iraq.

That doesn't mean that thoughtful Democrats can afford to ignore Feldstein's important ideas about what can be done to improve social insurance. They are more durable than the Bush administration. Many of them will stand the test of time. Indeed, probably it will be the Democrats who ultimately put them into practice.
Note it's basically a good idea, according to current economic theory. That's certainly not the impression one receives from a lot of the media. For instance, this morning Cokie Roberts concluded her report on Bush's Social Security reform by citing Democratic opposition to the "ownership society" which would say "'s a gamble; don't gamble with Social Security; don't help, uh, equities traders get rich...." (At about the 3:55 point.) That is indeed the position of some Democrats, but it's nonsense to suggest that the stock market is mere gambling, or that equities traders get rich at the expense of ordinary investors.

Sunday, January 30

Which One Doesn't Belong?

Yeah, I know they're mostly from that NYTimes article. So sue me.

Chris Wissman Is a Jerk

Chris Wissman was passing out flyers supporting his candidacy for city council representative, and when he came to my house he actually tried to peek inside. Clearly he's not someone with a lot of respect for privacy.

A Chinese Vote for Democracy, #1

This is from the People's Daily online, as are the two pictures below (click to enlarge). The caption on picture on the mid-left reads, "January 30, an Iraqi policeman votes in the soutern city of Basra." It looks like some Chinese journalists wish they had some democracy of their own.


There's also an article titled "A Small Dicionary of the Important Political Forces in the Iraqi Election (伊拉克大选中的主要政治力量及小辞典). I'm impressed that a mouthpiece of the dictatorship (of what, these days? Surely not the proletariat!) goes into such detail. You'd think the election mattered.

A Chinese Vote for Democracy, #2

January 30, an Iraqi policeman votes in the southern city of Basra. The general election was held on the 30th, and each electoral place opened at seven (12 o'clock Beijing time). This election will select 275 places in a transitional Iraqi assembly, which will produce a transitiona government. Xinhua/Reuters

1月30日,一名伊拉克警察在南部城市巴士拉投票。伊拉克大选30日举行,各地投票站于当地时间7时(北京时间12时)对选民开放。这次选举将选出拥有275个席位的伊拉克过渡议会,再由过渡议会产生新的过渡政府。 新华社/路透

A Chinese Vote for Democracy, #3

January 30, an Iraqi woman at a Bagdad voting place dunks her finger in color, preparing to vote.


Saturday, January 29

Tyranny is working toward its own demise

I get the feeling that Robert Wright is using capitalism mostly as a stick to beat Bush. Still, I agree with The Market Shall Set You Free:
...this Republican president doesn't appreciate free markets. Mr. Bush doesn't see how capitalism helps drive history toward freedom via an algorithm that for all we know is divinely designed and is in any event awesomely elegant. Namely: Capitalism's pre-eminence as a wealth generator means that every tyrant has to either embrace free markets or fall slowly into economic oblivion; but for markets to work, citizens need access to information technology and the freedom to use it - and that means having political power.

This link between economic and political liberty has been extolled by conservative thinkers for centuries, but the microelectronic age has strengthened it. Even China's deftly capitalist-yet-authoritarian government - which embraces technology while blocking Web sites and censoring chat groups - is doomed to fail in the long run. China is increasingly porous to news and ideas, and its high-tech political ferment goes beyond online debates. Last year a government official treated a blue-collar worker high-handedly in a sidewalk encounter and set off a riot - after news of the incident spread by cell phones and text messaging.

...anyone who talks as if Chinese freedom hasn't grown since China went capitalist is evincing a hazy historical memory and, however obliquely, is abetting war. Right-wing hawks thrive on depicting tyranny as a force of nature, when in fact nature is working toward its demise.

The president said last week that military force isn't the principal lever he would use to punish tyrants. But that mainly leaves economic levers, like sanctions and exclusion from the World Trade Organization. Given that involvement in the larger capitalist world is time-release poison for tyranny, impeding this involvement is an odd way to aid history's march toward freedom. Four decades of economic isolation have transformed Fidel Castro from a young, fiery dictator into an old, fiery dictator.

Overblown risk

Burton G. Malkiel (author of A Random Walk Down Wall Street) had an op-ed (pdf) explaining why the riskiness of private social security accounts has often been exaggerated.

Inflicting harm on the poor

Gary S. Becker et al. argue that (pdf)
a monetary tax on a legal good could cause a greater reduction in output and increase in price than would optimal enforcement, even recognizing that producers may want to go underground to try to avoid a monetary tax. This means that fighting a war on drugs by legalizing drug use and taxing consumption may be more effective than continuing to prohibit the legal use of drugs.

...a monetary tax on a legal good could cause a greater reduction in output and increase in price than would optimal enforcement, even recognizing that producers may want to go underground to try to avoid a monetary tax. Indeed, the optimal monetary tax that maximizes social welfare tends to exceed the optimal nonmonetary tax. This means, in particular, that fighting a war on drugs by legalizing drug use and taxing consumption may be more effective than continuing to prohibit the legal use of drugs.

...our analysis implies that monetary taxes on legal goods can be quite effective, drugs and many other goods are illegal.... [T]he explanation is related to the greater political clout of the middle classes.

...[T]he total price of illegal goods tends to be lower to poorer persons. Since most crimes are concentrated in poorer neighborhoods, illegal drug production and distribution also tends to be concentrated in these neighborhoods. This makes illegal goods cheaper to persons who live in these neighborhoods since access to them is easier. The total cost of drugs and other illegal goods is cheaper to poorer persons also because they are more likely to be involved in the trafficking in these goods. They are more involved because the cost of imprisonment and similar punishments from selling drugs is less to individuals with lower opportunities in the legal sector. The full cost argument is stronger if we consider enforcement against consumers. Since the non-monetary tax, i.e., punishment, is more time intensive, this corresponds to a difference in the value of the tax between classes that exacerbates the effect. There are also reputational effects that make conviction costlier for the wealthy. In fact, more than half of all persons imprisoned on drug charges are African-American....

Even disclosure of use sometimes is very costly to higher income and more educated persons. During his first presidential campaign, Bill Clinton had to deny that he inhaled on the allegedly few occasions when he smoked marijuana. Marijuana use during his student days cost Judge Douglas Ginsberg a Supreme Court seat.

Our conclusion is that making goods illegal and punishing suppliers and consumers by imprisonment and other methods are more costly to higher income persons, and hence tends to reduce their consumption more than consumption of lower income persons. Even if low, middle, and higher income parents have the same desire to discourage drug use by their children, the great political influence of higher education and income groups would explain why drugs are illegal rather than subject to sizeable monetary excise taxes. It also helps explain why punishment is mainly imposed on suppliers rather than consumers of drugs since traffickers are more likely than consumers to be low-income persons.

This analysis also helps explain why prostitution and much gambling are illegal rather than legally consumed with high excise taxes. If individuals at all income levels want to discourage consumption of these goods by children and other family members or friends, the politically powerful middle and higher income persons would prefer to make them illegal rather than legal and subject to high "sin" taxes. The explanation is again that consumption of these goods by middle and richer individuals are reduced more when they are illegal than subject to the high sin taxes. The intent may not be to inflict greater harm on the poor, but making goods like drugs, gambling, and prostitution illegal, and mainly punishing traffickers, has precisely that effect.

Electoral hypocrisy?

Critics See Hypocrisy in China's Support for Baghdad Elections By Mark Magnier:
China has contributed $1 million to help organize Sunday's election in Iraq, raising questions at home and abroad about how a country that supports balloting in another land can deny its citizens a chance to vote for their leaders.
Still more ironic in light of the fact that at least some of Hu Jintao's advisers saw Yushchenko's victory in Ukraine as the specter of a domino effect, leading to China's transformation into a capitalist state via a process of "peaceful evolution". So democracy is OK in some places, at least.

Friday, January 28

How to Evaluate Health Risks

by Maia Szalavitz at the Statistical Assessment Service:
  • When you see a news report about new research, it’s important to determine whether the research was experimental or observational.
  • If you don't see the words "randomization," "controlled" or "experimental," it's probably an observational study.
  • Observational research can never show that one thing causes another; it can only show that there is a "correlation," or association, between two or more things.
  • If experimental studies exist, they are almost always better evidence than observational data and should be given greater weight in your decisions about changing your behavior.
  • Experimental studies can produce misleading results if they only draw on a few subjects. The more subjects there are in the study, the less likely the results are due to chance or error.
  • Where there is data, the best kind of study to base behavior change on is a systematic review of randomized, controlled trials.
  • The second best is a randomized controlled trial.
  • The third is an observational study.
  • When you look at health research and risk determinations, check the dosage given to the subjects and the other related variables to be sure it’s comparable to the kind of exposure you may have or be considering and weigh human data more heavily than animal research.
  • If a new study was done on a group that is very different from you and there is no research on more diverse populations, you should give it less weight than one which looks at people who are more similar to you or one which has a more diverse sample.
  • Risk increases of less than 200% (a factor of two) are often due to chance. If an observational study links something to a 30% increased risk of cancer, it may sound alarming, but unless there is additional evidence, most scientists do not consider the risk significant enough to prompt a major change in behavior.
  • Anecdotes, no matter how compelling, are not ever enough to establish a causal relationship.
  • When deciding whether research warrants a change, keep in mind whether it was published in a peer-reviewed journal, as well as who funded it, and what their larger agenda may be.
  • New health data picked up by the media is something you should pay attention to, but is almost never something you should build your life around.

You're not allowed to sit still

Fidgeting Helps Separate the Lean From the Obese, Study Finds By Rob Stein
The extra motion by lean people is enough to burn about 350 extra calories a day, which could add up to 10 to 30 pounds a year, the researchers found....

[James A. Levine of the Mayo Clinic, who led the research said] "'s going to take a massive, top-down approach to change the environment in which we live to get us up and be lean again."

Other researchers agreed, saying the new study, while small, provides powerful new evidence that a major cause of the obesity epidemic is the pattern of desk jobs, car pools, suburban sprawl, and other environmental and lifestyle factors that discourage physical activity.


I like The Fit Tend to Fidget, and Biology May Be Why, a Study Says By DENISE GRADY a bit better:
The findings, being published today in the journal Science, are from a study in which researchers at the Mayo Clinic outfitted 10 lean men and women and 10 slightly obese ones - all of whom described themselves as "couch potatoes" - with underwear carrying sensors that measured their body postures and movements every half second for 10 days on several occasions.
Dr. Eric Ravussin, an obesity researcher at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, La., who wrote an essay in Science about Dr. Levine's study, said that because the tendency to sit still seemed to be biological, it might not be easy for obese people to change their ways. "The bad news," Dr. Ravussin said, "is that you cannot tell people, 'Why don't you sit less and be a little more fidgety,' because they may do it for a couple of hours but won't sustain it for days and weeks and months and years."

But Dr. Rudolph Leibel, an obesity researcher at Columbia University Medical Center, said, "People can be taught and motivated to change their behavior in service of their health."

Dr. Leibel also noted that although it was plausible that the tendency to be inactive was biologically determined, it had not been proved.

Dr. Ravussin said it might be possible to help people stay lean by making their environments less conducive to sitting, though that would take major societal changes like rebuilding neighborhoods in which people can walk to markets instead of "the remote shopping mall with 10,000 parking spots and everybody is fighting for the handicapped one."
I'm skeptical that any government will be able to do this. But according to Ian Sample in Fat to fit: how Finland did it,
[Finland] is one of only two countries to have halted the downward spiral towards terminal couch potatoism, or sedentary inactivity to use the official parlance. Only Canada, though New Zealand may be a contender, can claim to have done as much to get people off their sofas and exercising.
And how did they do it?
"The biggest innovation was massive community-based intervention. We tried to change entire communities, "says [Pekka Puska, director of the National Institute of Public Health in Helsinki]. Instead of a mass campaign telling people what not to do, officials blitzed the population with positive incentives. Villages held "quit and win"competitions for smokers, where those who didn't spark up for a month won prizes. Entire towns were set against each other in cholesterol-cutting showdowns.

Local competitions were combined with sweeping nationwide changes in legislation. All forms of tobacco advertising were banned outright. Farmers were all but forced to produce low-fat milk or grow a new variety of oilseed rape bred just for the region that would make domestic vegetable oil widely available for the first time.
That sounds like a real non-starter in the US. In addition to changing people's diet, the government made an effort to get people moving:
...first by selling enjoyable activities to people that happened to require physical activity, and second ensuring exercise was the cheap and easy choice to make.

From the start, the Finnish plans benefited by shifting money away from Helsinki to local authorities and making them responsible for exercise promotion. Obvious outcomes were cheap, clean swimming pools, ball parks, and well-maintained snow parks....less obvious were what medics might refer to as "unusual interventions ".

"There were towns where the pubs were full of middle-aged men who seemed to do little other than drink, "says Ilkka Vuori, a fitness expert at Tampere University and ex-director of the UKK Institute Centre for Health Promotion in Tampere. "They were a difficult group to reach, so teams went to the pubs, spoke to them and negotiated what they might be interested in doing as exercise. "Nearly 2, 000 men in one region were either lent bikes and taken on tours, tempted into a swimming pool, or had a shot at ball games or cross-country skiing. "It was about getting ideas that would work at that kind of local level, "says Vuori. "Success relied upon it. "...

In a time when people often give the excuse of not having enough time to exercise, it was seen as the only way of reaching some groups. Commuting became an obvious target, and campaigns were set up to encourage people to walk and cycle more. The public health messages being sent out were backed up by action on the ground with hundreds of kilometres of new walking and cycle paths laid down to form networks into towns and cities, and money was provided to keep them well maintained and lit at night...

A revision to state legislation meant that in many places, the houses lining a street now take responsibility for keeping the pavements in front of their homes safe and clear of snow and ice. It doesn't sound like a law many would adhere to, but Vuori says it is taken very seriously...

The latest practical measure being brought in is the Movement Prescription Project. Based on an idea cooked up in New Zealand, it encourages GPs to prescribe physical activity to their patients along the same lines as medication.
But here's the problem:
Observers of the Finnish success story are now working on how they can bring such drastic improvements to their own countries. Privately, some claim that Finland had it easier than many because its citizens are happy to live in a nanny state.
So I'm afraid it's not likely to work in the US.

Thursday, January 27

Access to Free Credit Reports

From the Feds:
Consumers in the Midwestern states — Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin — can order their free reports beginning March 1, 2005.

Q: How do I order my free report?

A: The three nationwide consumer reporting companies have set up one central website, toll-free telephone number, and mailing address through which you can order your free annual report. To order, click on

You may order your reports from each of the three nationwide consumer reporting companies at the same time, or you can order from only one or two. The law allows you to order one free copy from each of the nationwide consumer reporting companies every 12 months.
(A reminder to myself.)

They no longer trust the government

System No Help to China's Laid-Off Workers: Couple Who Petitioned For Promised Benefits Get Jail Terms Instead By Edward Cody
An ailing unemployed worker in this frigid northeastern city, having exhausted all other options, made one final appeal last month, to President Hu Jintao. In careful ideograms penned from his sickbed, Zhao Lizhong pleaded with the most powerful man in the country to pay attention to the poor and powerless, who, he said, had nowhere else to turn.

"I told him the electricity company cheated us," Zhao recalled, showing the determination that he and a band of laid-off friends have brought to a four-year struggle with the powerful bureaucracy of China's one-party government.

Zhao, 50, and his wife, Gong Xiuchen, 43, said they had tried everything the system provides to obtain the benefits they were promised when the Liaoyuan Power Supply Co. dismissed them and about 200 other employees at the end of 2000. They and their colleagues repeatedly carried petitions to Liaoyuan Communist Party offices, to the government-sanctioned labor union, to Jilin province offices, even to the national electricity company headquarters in Beijing, all to no avail.

Although Chinese regulations provide for such entreaties, Zhao and Gong were imprisoned without trial because, they said, they refused to give up their campaign against a corrupt company whose officials had friends in high places. Zhao spent a month in a nearby reeducation camp, putting plastic decorations on toothpicks to be used in fancy restaurants. Gong was freed last spring after spending 18 months sewing clothes in a women's prison near the airport at Changchun, the provincial capital, 60 miles to the northwest.

As a result of their experience -- and the apparent futility of their battle -- both have concluded that China's party-run justice system is a dead end for the people it is supposed to protect....

"There is no law in China," Zhao complained. "Where there is money, there is power, and where there is power, that's where the law is."

The ordeal recounted by Zhao, his wife and their colleagues seems to have taken place in a different universe from Beijing, where official pronouncements portray a fast-modernizing society. The government led by Hu and Premier Wen Jiabao has repeatedly vowed to end official corruption at all levels, reinforce the rule of law and give citizens an effective way to seek redress for what they consider wrongful decisions.

China's economy overvalued?

Citing Business Week (31 January, p.47) Tyler Cowen notes:
  • Percentage of Chinese workers who have no pension, private or public: Eighty percent
  • Expected ratio of workers to retirees, circa 2030: Two-to-one
  • Projected shortfall of the Chinese national pension system by 2033: $53.3 billion

Wednesday, January 26

Liberal China

The Latin Americanization of China? (pdf), by George Gilboy and Eric Heginbotham:
China’s tumultuous reform process could see the creation of new, more liberal legal and social institutions. Transforming migrants into urban citizens with equal rights and allowing social groups to organize and articulate their own interests would both improve the ability of the government to govern effectively and minimize longterm threats to stability and economic development.

But other outcomes are also possible. The state could refuse to allow liberal institutional innovation and slip into a modern form of authoritarian corporatism in which political leaders might seek to channel social energies toward nationalist ends— the “revolution from above” about which Barrington Moore warned. Or alternatively, China could catch the Latin American disease, characterized by a polarized urban society, intensifying urban conflict, and failed economic promise. Indeed, despite aggressive efforts to make the state more responsive and adaptive, the speed with which social cleavages and conflicts are growing today arguably makes this last outcome easier to imagine than the others.
But they go on to be fairly optimistic that China will set up "liberal" institutions.

I meant to mention that the article also mentions that "你真农民" (You're really "peasant" is an insult). This would appear to be the case.

Saturday, January 22


Via Will Wilkinson:Exploiting the Asian Disaster to Increase Foreign Aid by Ian Vásquez:
Unfortunately, foreign assistance has a poor record at promoting development. There is in fact no correlation between aid and growth and few experts inside or outside lending agencies are satisfied with the performance of aid. In practice, much aid has been inimical to growth because it has supported governments whose policies keep people impoverished in the first place. The result has been debt, not development.

The World Bank's list of 42 heavily indebted poor countries that cannot pay back their loans -- most of them in Africa -- is a serious indictment of the foreign aid process. Ninety-seven percent of that long-term debt is public or publicly guaranteed. Even though the World Bank acknowledges that aid has often been an "unmitigated failure" and that aid that goes into a poor policy environment doesn't work, the Bank's soft loan branch in recent years increased its lending to countries with poor policies.

Nor is aid generally effective at promoting reforms in recipient nations. Post-soviet Russia and dozens of countries around the world -- including heavily indebted ones -- are evidence that countries promise necessary reforms but ignore aid conditions once the money is received. By the end of the 1990s, the World Bank acknowledged what has also become a consensus among development experts: there "is no systematic effect of aid on policy."

One of the reasons for aid's disappointing performance is that "rich countries don't hold the managers of aid institutions accountable for their long record of failure," according William Easterly, a leading development economist formerly at the World Bank. Indeed, aid agencies rarely cut off recipients who misuse those funds, something of which all recipients are well aware. Largely because the lack of accountability hasn't changed, Easterly opposes increases in foreign aid.

Yet for the foreign aid establishment, the amount of money moved is still a prominent measure of success. Thus, Washington is ungenerous because it transfers 0.15 percent of its GDP to poor countries -- less than other rich countries. Thus also, the World Bank is calling for a doubling of worldwide aid flows. The UN regularly cites its own arbitrary level of desired aid, set in the 1970s at 0.7 percent of rich counties' GDPs. In practical terms, that would mean that worldwide aid flows would almost triple to more than $190 billion. For the United States, it would mean more than quadrupling the 2003 aid level of $16.2 billion.

The truest measure of generosity, however, is how much individuals and private organizations voluntarily give. Former U.S. Agency for International Development official Carol Adelman found that U.S. private aid to those abroad far exceeds Washington's official development assistance. A few years ago, her "conservative estimate" put private foreign aid at three-and-a-half times U.S. development aid.

The rise in aid from private U.S. entities includes foundations, churches, corporations, and private voluntary organizations like the YMCA and the Red Cross. It is safe to say that U.S. private aid still accounts for between three and four times official aid. U.S. remittances alone amounted to at least $30 billion in 2003, nearly double U.S. aid.

And because private aid tends to be less bureaucratic and gets to the people it intends to help, it also tends to be much more effective than official assistance. According to Adelman, moreover, the United States contrasts sharply with the "Europeans and the Japanese [who] continue to give primarily through their governments."

In this sense, the United States is, if not the most generous country in the world, very near the top of the list. And its aid is surely more helpful to the world's poor than that of other countries. It's a shame that the Asian tsunami disaster is being cynically exploited to advocate massive increases in aid that doesn't work.
Of course, we can't believe this because it's from the Cato institute, and they're evil. Plus, showing you're properly sympathetic is more important than actually solving the problem.

Conservative social engineering

Jonathan Rauch's Social Security as Social Engineering cites a White House aide's
memo making the case for Social Security reform....The memo...stressed moving "away from dependency on government and toward giving greater power and responsibility to individuals."..

Conservatives used to speak derisively of liberal social engineering. The attempt to create private Social Security accounts is, so to speak, conservative social counter-engineering. Government should help provide for unforeseeable contingencies: tsunamis, unemployment, open-heart surgery. But if there is one event in all of human life that is wholly foreseeable, it is the advent of old age. Why, then, shouldn't people save for their own retirement, instead of relying on welfare from the government—which is what Social Security, as currently constituted, really is?

[Michael Tanner, the director of the project on Social Security choice at the libertarian Cato Institute] argues that people who own assets behave differently and see their place in society in a different light. Private accounts, he says, would encourage a culture of saving and personal responsibility; they would discourage political class warfare; they may, he argues, improve work habits, and even reduce crime and other social pathologies. Create private Social Security accounts, and millions of low-income Americans will be stockholders and bondholders. Republican political activists look at the way portfolio investors vote—and salivate at the prospect of millions more of them.

The 2004 exit polls suggested, to many conservatives, that "moral values" won the election for Bush. It may seem odd, then, that his boldest post-election priority is not abortion or gay marriage or schools, but Social Security. The key to the paradox is that Social Security reform is not, at bottom, an economic issue with moral overtones. It is a moral issue with economic overtones.
I think it'll fail, though

Raising Prices

All That Have Not Fins and Scales: Imports are an abomination, according to domestic shrimpers by Kerry Howley:
Thanks to something called the Byrd Amendment, Louisiana's shrimpers will be much better off in a few months. The Amendment ensures that duties collected in anti-dumping cases will be paid directly to American producers. According to one nonprofit, that adds up to $1 million in payouts for each company involved in the case. Soon, you won't be subsidizing Big Shrimp; the third world will.

That may seem unfair, but the complex web of American trade law sustains yet greater absurdities. According to Deborah Long, an SSA spokesperson, the subsidies the SSA is so worked up about are not government subsidies, but developmental aid. In addition to the World Bank, that aid is provided by our very own US Agency for International Development. The U.S. government has slapped tariffs on third world nations as punishment for accepting U.S. assistance, and now some of that aid will be used to pay those tariffs, which will in turn end up in the pockets of American shrimp farmers. Washington could just write a check to SSA, but that would be protectionism. This, apparently, is anti-dumping...

Distributors say the anti-dumping hysteria isn't just bad for the far-off third world; it's bad for all of shrimp-scarfing, scampi-loving America. Wally Stevens, the president of the American Seafood Distribution Association, says the US trade czars lack the "common sense of a third grader." The ruling, he says, will threaten 20 times the number of jobs it protects. Distributing and serving shrimp is a much bigger business than fishing for it, and as prices inevitably shoot up, jobs will be lost.

Friday, January 21

Diversity is OK if it excludes the majority of Americans

I'm actually quite fond of the NYT, but following SARAH BOXER's ridiculous Pro-American Iraqi Blog Provokes Intrigue and Vitriol with Islamic Pilgrims Bring Cosmopolitan Air to Unlikely City is truly self-parody: no non-Muslims are allowed in the city. If there were an American or Western European city that excluded nearly four fifths of the world's population, the Western press would hardly celebrate its diversity. The tone of An American Woman's View of the Hajj on NPR yesterday was similar.

Broken promises

A Chinese Court Sentences Farmers Who Protested a Land Seizure By JIM YARDLEY:
A court in northwest China has imposed stiff sentences on farmers who spent almost two years protesting and holding sit-ins in a vain effort to stop a government land seizure.

The seizure of farmland by local officials for economic development has become one of the most contentious issues in the Chinese countryside. Experts estimate that as many as 70 million farmers have been left without land. Tens of thousands of farmers have petitioned for help in Beijing, and top leaders have promised to protect farmers' rights.

Despite such promises, the stiff sentences handed down against protesters from the village of Sanchawan in northern Shaanxi Province illustrated the risks facing farmers who protest the seizures

Find it yourself

Looming pitfalls of work blogs by Jo Twist mentions these blogs, but one has to find the links oneself:

The Waiter is a little preachy.

Thursday, January 20

Great Leap Leftward?

The article Hu's Campaign for Ideological Purity Against the West by Willy Lam
Call it the Great Leap Leftward. President and Commander-in-Chief Hu Jintao is presiding over a leftward turn in politics that has come as a surprise to Hu admirers who were once impressed with the Fourth-Generation leader's reformist inclinations. In Chinese terminology, "left" has the connotation of being conservative, doctrinaire, and in tune with Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought.

In internal sessions devoted to the Ukraine phenomenon, Hu's aides in the LGFA pointed out that, in the words of one America specialist, Yushchenko's election triumph was due to the fact that "the West, led by the U.S., has been successful in infiltrating former Communist countries, thus resulting in their tilt toward America." Hu advisers have raised the specter of a domino effect, meaning that after Ukraine, similar pro-West, pro-U.S. administrations may emerge in other former Soviet-bloc countries, including member countries of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization such as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan, which have close ties with Beijing. Moreover, the Hu leadership has inherited late patriarch Deng Xiaoping's suspicions that Washington is dead-set on effectuating China's transformation into a capitalist state via a process of "peaceful evolution"...

Most disturbing for China's intellectuals is the fact that the CCP leadership's fears about "subversion" allegedly spearheaded by the U.S. have translated into tough tactics against the nation's liberal academics, writers and journalists.

Yet another reason behind President Hu's crackdown on intellectuals was the declining health of former party chief Zhao Ziyang, who died at the age of 85 on Jan 17...

Apart from cracking the whip on recalcitrant "rightists" and "all-out Westernizers," Hu and his colleagues are masterminding an old-style ideological campaign to promote Marxist rectitude and "ideological purity" among cadres and ordinary party members...

...Perhaps almost as much as for Mao, it's the party's - and its reigning supremo's - monopoly on power that matters most for Hu at the end of the day.
Great Leap Leftward? No, like most everything else, it's about keeping the Communist Party dictatorship in power. Still, the Chinese Communists blaming U.S. infiltration of the Ukraine for Yushchenko's election reminds me of those who blame the Korean War for shifting Mao's policies to the left. If the Korean war was wrong, I suppose we should have let l'il Kim take over the whole peninsula. And if we can't even support democracy in Eastern Europe, I guess we should just let Russia dominate the countries there. Otherwise, they might get upset or something.

Heil, Mao

With regard to Prince Harry's Rommel costume, Mark Steyn writes:
The French sports minister suggested the "scandal" would undermine Britain's bid to host the Olympics. Londoners should be so lucky.

But, if I understand the concern of the sporting world correctly, being a totalitarian state that's killed millions is no obstacle to hosting the Olympics, but going to a costume party wearing the uniform of a defunct totalitarian state that's no longer around to kill millions is completely unacceptable.
(via Mindles H. Dreck)

Wednesday, January 19

Kill millions and host the Olympics

With regard to Prince Harry's Rommel costume, Mark Steyn writes:
The French sports minister suggested the "scandal" would undermine Britain's bid to host the Olympics. Londoners should be so lucky.

But, if I understand the concern of the sporting world correctly, being a totalitarian state that's killed millions is no obstacle to hosting the Olympics, but going to a costume party wearing the uniform of a defunct totalitarian state that's no longer around to kill millions is completely unacceptable.
(via Mindles H. Dreck)

Sunday, January 16

It's More Than Social Security

I've got to read Robert J. Samuelson more often:
Anyone who examines the outlook must conclude that, even allowing for uncertainties, both Social Security and Medicare benefits will have to be cut. We can either make future cuts now, with warnings to beneficiaries, or we can wait for budgetary pressures to force abrupt cuts later, with little warning. That's the problem, and to answer Bush, no one wants to address it.
I was reminded of him by lying in ponds' Neutral Index. I'm surprised to see William Safire & David Brooks so high up on that list.

Antagonism to the market system

From an interview with Nobel prizewinner Ronald Coase, which first appeared in the January 1997 issue of Reason; reprinted in Policy (via Jim Lindgren):
Roughly speaking, when you are dealing with business firms operating in a competitive system, you can assume that they're going to act rationally. Why? Because someone in a firm who buys things at $10 and sells them for $8 isn't going to last very long in that firm. I think that the market imposes a great discipline, and the discipline of the market makes the assumption of rationality in that field correct.

I find that people behave in ways that destroy themselves and their families, produce a lot of hardship, and when it comes to policy do the same thing. I hold the view of Frank Knight: in certain areas rationality is enforced; in other areas it's weakly enforced. You get more irrationality within the family and in consumer behavior than you get, say, in the behavior of firms in their purchases.

...[The University of Virginia] thought the work we were doing was disreputable. They thought of us as right-wing extremists. My wife was at a cocktail party and heard me described as someone to the right of the John Birch Society. There was a great antagonism in the '50s and '60s to anyone who saw any advantage in a market system or in a nonregulated or relatively economically free system.
Then the interviewer asks him about an article of his on the market for goods and the market for ideas:
I said that the arguments for regulation of the market for goods and the regulation of the market for ideas are essentially the same, except that they're perhaps stronger in the area of ideas if you assume consumer ignorance. It's easier for people to discover that they have a bad can of peaches than it is for them to discover that they have a bad idea.

[Interviewer]: So if you think that the consumer, ignorant as he is, ought to be protected by a government regulator, then you should really believe that the government regulator ought to step in and police the speech of professors or politicians or pundits.

RC: That's right. If the government is competent to do the one, it's competent to do the other.

[Interviewer]: Then there ought to be a federal philosophy commission.

Fearmongering against China?

Ted C. Fishman, plugging his new book, China, Inc.: How the Rise of the Next Superpower Challenges America and the World, slams the Chinese for Manufaketure:
...China's appropriation and dissemination of the world's most valuable products and technologies, if they continue unabated, will ultimately mean a lot more than dollars lost. China's pirating and counterfeiting could radically change the way entertainment, fashion, medicine and services are created and sold. The companies, big and small, that Americans work for could be weakened. Chinese practices might reduce the prices of what we buy, by undermining the powerful companies that now control essential but expensive goods like drugs and computer software -- or these practices might, should China's unwillingness to accede to American copyright demands ignite trade wars, drive prices up. A U.S. consular official in China who requested anonymity -- few American officials are willing to speak openly about sensitive issues relating to China -- told me: "Nothing has a higher priority in our trade policy than the fight to protect American intellectual property. It is every bit as important an effort for us as the war against weapons of mass destruction."
A couple of days before that, in The struggle of the champions the Economist stated,
The [Chinese] economy is still in transition between dirigisme and free markets. Its political system can harness enormous resources, but ultimately undermines its own objectives in a paranoid desire to retain control.

That China intends to create world-class companies is indisputable. Appalled by the speed of western development and, rightly, attributing much of that to the success of western corporations, the central government decided some years ago that 30-50 of its best state firms should be built into "national champions" or "globally competitive" multinationals by 2010. At home, these companies would enjoy tax breaks, cheap land and virtually free funding via the state-owned banks. Abroad, the government would help them to secure contracts or exploration rights.

...Arthur Kroeber, managing editor of the China Economic Quarterly, argues that China's "unique combination of first world infrastructure and third world labour costs" and its focus on capacity building rather than technological innovation mean that corporate successes are more likely to be component manufacturers or processors of intermediate goods than global consumer brands such as South Korea's Samsung.

...China's consumer-brand and technology companies are struggling....Far from being world-class, Lenovo is less efficient than its domestic peers, says Joe Zhang, an analyst at UBS in Hong Kong. Some put its early success down to good government connections—it is majority-owned by the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Another much-heralded company is Qingdao-based Haier....Haier lacks the cost control, production discipline, market dominance and sales support it needs to compete with foreign rivals outside China. Even at home it has had to resort to price wars to regain market share lost to better foreign products.

...Over the past decade, then, China has created some quite large companies. More than a dozen are in the Fortune 500 list, though almost all of those are domestic monopolies or near-monopolies, such as telecom operators or big commodity producers. A handful of others are starting to compete internationally, though mostly in niche markets and on price rather than with technology or brands.

But the global footprint of Chinese companies is still rather faint. Their outward foreign direct investment was just $2.9 billion in 2003, compared with the more than $50 billion that flowed into the mainland. China's stock of outward FDI amounts to $33 billion, less than half a percent of accumulated world FDI. These facts have led some long-term observers of the Chinese economy to the conclusion that China's industrial policy since the early 1980s essentially has failed. That might turn out to be premature. But one contrast is revealing: 20 years after the start of its rapid economic development a decade earlier, South Korea had built successful heavy industry groups and was beginning to lay the foundations for the technology and consumer brands people know today.

If anything, the gap between Chinese and foreign firms is widening, as the latter merge, reinvest the profits yielded by their scale economies and continually hone their management systems....

...the Chinese government, deeply afraid of a politically independent private sector, implemented reforms that have given state firms privileged access to capital, technology and markets. But in order for the economy to grow faster, the central government has allowed foreign companies into China at a much earlier stage of its development and these now control the bulk of the country's industrial exports, have increasingly strong positions in its domestic markets and retain ownership of almost all technology. The result is a corporate landscape of a few big private companies such as Huawei, a mass of lumbering state-owned firms and increasingly powerful foreign multinationals.

China's unreformed political system has a second unintended consequence. Like the bosses of South Korea's chaebol before them, Chinese managers respond to regulatory inconsistency and opacity by pursuing short-term returns and excessive diversification rather than by investing in long-term technological development. Most are unwilling to develop "horizontal" networks with customers, suppliers and trade bodies—which in other countries establish technology standards and foster confidence in long-term research. In China, a company's best defence against corruption and the direct political linkages that benefit rivals is often to avoid business collaboration entirely and instead build vertical links up the Communist Party hierarchy and curry favour with local bureaucrats.

The power of officials to change policy at a moment's notice (suddenly appointing a successful boss as governor of a province, for example) or implement it in different ways for different firms, combined with the impossibility of achieving economies of scale through mergers because targets enjoy political patronage, together explain why Chinese managers tend to leap from one opportunity to the next, trying to grab a profit before the rules and the competition catch up.

...In recent years China has averaged a $12 billion annual trade deficit in electronic goods, components and machinery, according to the Ministry of Commerce. Most of its "high-tech" manufacturing is actually low-value-added assembly. The really smart bits, such as integrated circuits, are imported. The government continues to direct research spending, focusing on risky "big bang" projects (like sending a man into space). Indeed, China's low wages actually provide a disincentive to such investment, since Chinese firms can often boost short-run profits by replacing capital with additional labour.

Not surprisingly, therefore, foreign companies control virtually all the intellectual property in China and account for 85% of its technology exports.

...Chinese companies struggle with challenges such as negotiating a cross-border partnership or exiting a loss-making activity, argues Gordon Orr at McKinsey in Shanghai. While multinationals import their most sophisticated business systems to China, improving productivity by 15% a year, Chinese companies still resort to "brute force"—throwing more labour and capital at problems, rather than thinking about new processes. Unless they improve, they do not stand a chance against world-class competitors, either outside their borders and soon not even on their home turf, warns Mr Orr.

China has so far failed to build world-class companies. Even the natural monopolies and resources companies are mostly just big rather than particularly efficient. In manufacturing, technology and consumer areas, a few companies are groping towards international competitiveness, but none are there yet. Nor will China necessarily produce a Sony or a Samsung. "People assume it is just a matter of time before China develops world-class brands," says Mr Gilboy. "But Chinese firms may not develop like Japanese or Korean ones did. China may be building a distinct model of capitalism with distinct firms." While American firms broadly excel at breakthrough innovations, and Japanese ones at process and incremental innovations, "China capitalism may simply be best at making things a lot cheaper." If so, China might do well to focus on building no-name component suppliers as Taiwan has, rather than home-grown brands as in Japan and South Korea.

For unless China institutes far-reaching political and structural reforms that give Chinese managers the confidence to invest in long-term technological development, it cannot readily build a globally competitive corporate sector.
Fishman may be a former floor trader and member of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, but I'm not sure how much he understands about economics. In an editorial for the NYT he wrote several years ago, he said,
These days it seems that providing a simple drink of water is not so much an exercise in quenching the thirsty as in soaking them.

...In India, the Sarai Act mandates that an innkeeper give a free glass of drinking water to any passerby. Indeed, in most places around the world, giving strangers water is the bare minimum of humane behavior. Why is that not so here?
Actually, water shortages are becoming a world-wide problem, partly because people don't pay for it. As the Economist argued earlier in Priceless, a survey on water, one difficulty with water is's extravagantly wasteful misuse of it. This stems largely from a wilful refusal to treat water as an economic good, subject to the laws of supply and demand. Water, the stuff of life, ought to be the most precious of all gifts. Yet throughout history, and especially over the past century, it has been ill-governed and, above all, colossally underpriced. Indeed it is often given away completely free. Not only does this ignore the huge costs of collecting, cleaning, storing and distributing it, to say nothing of treating waste-water and sewage. It also leads to overuse of water for the wrong things, especially for highly water-intensive crops. The best way to deal with water is to price it more sensibly—to reflect, so far as possible, the costs of providing it (including environmental costs), as well as its marginal utility.

Saturday, January 15

Socially consciousness, social responsibility, social justice

Inaugural Protesters Take On War, Other Issues: "The war in Iraq transformed Nancy Mancias from a socially conscious artist into a social activist...."

In the American political context "socially conscious" connotes left-wing "liberal", but literally speaking, right-wing evangelicals are also "socially conscious" in the sense of conscious of society. Otherwise, why would they be so upset about issues like abortion, gay marriage, and inserting religion into daily life? Surely that shows a concern for society, too, but somehow like the words liberal and progressive, the left has appropriated "socially conscious". Instead of much about social consciousness, on the web I found a bunch of stuff about "being socially responsible", which generally indicated to corporate responsibility.
From ExxonMobil in the UK:
Being socially responsible means operating safely and with due care for the environment.
From a Times study of Cadbury Schweppes:
For a company, being socially responsible means using its resources and its influence to shape the lives of fellow citizens for the better.
From Corporate social responsibility in Greek Shipping:
It is worth stressing that being socially responsible means not only complying with relevant legislation, but also going beyond compliance and investing more than required into human capital and the relations with stakeholders.
From the government of Singapore, something a little different:
An individual who is socially responsible strives to be self-reliant and not be dependent on society. Such an individual also plays an active role in helping others in society who need assistance.

Being socially responsible means putting nation before self, while taking care of one's personal and family welfare. To instill in every Singaporean the values and moral fibre that will make him a good citizen takes a long time, if not a lifetime.
From Competition, Cooperation & Co-creation, on a meditation website:
Being "socially responsible" means moving from competition to cooperation in our thoughts and actions. This shift in consciousness is usually the result of a new awareness of one's relationship with the earth: the first evidence of applied systems thinking at a personal level....Competition as we understand it, must eventually give way to cooperation. Margaret Mead's cross-cultural studies led her to conclude that cooperation is more effective than competition at maximizing production.
Like I'm going to take Margaret Mead as an authority on development.

From I Count -- I Count You! EQ and the New Workplace
Socially responsible people have a social consciousness and a basic concern for others, which is manifested by being able to take on community-oriented responsibilities. This component relates to the ability to do things for and with others, accepting others, acting in accordance with one's conscience, and upholding social rules.
That's pretty vague.

From Change After the Radical Right’s Presidential Victory Can Come From the Republican Party, by someone who claims to be a conservative, swing voting Democrat who agrees with many of the Republican Party’s issues on some social and mostly all economic issues:
Americans must combat radicalism and fight for liberty, equality, and social justice within both political parties. We cannot leave the Republican Party out of being involved in these social movements or it will continue to be homogenous and relatively unaffected by diversity.

If more socially responsible people join the Republican Party, not only can they redirect the attitudes of the radical wing of the GOP they can also prevent ignorant and socially irresponsible people like President George W. Bush from becoming president.
And what's the opposite of "socially responsible"? Bush is described as "supremely socially irresponsible". Which led me to Socially Irresponsible Investing
The premise of SRI [socially responsible investing] is that investing for profit is socially irresponsible by its very nature. It is just assumed that capitalists are hell-bent on destroying the planet and robbing everyone in sight in order to satisfy their own greed. No further explanation is necessary.

SRI boosters seem not to have noticed that the most successful market-based economy in the world (the U.S.) has the cleanest air and water, the longest life expectancy, and incredible prosperity. Obesity is rampant while hunger is unheard of. Though pilloried by leftists as a racist, exploitive society, in any American city minorities can be seen driving European luxury cars. Entrepreneurial telecom firms have equipped many of these exploited peoples with the latest in cell phone technology, apparently at affordable prices....

According to Doug Henwood, editor of Left Business Observer and a well-known socialist critic of the stock market, there is simply no way to invest responsibly. If you want to earn stock-market-like returns, you must buy a regular mutual fund and "realize that what you're doing is unethical." Social responsibly, he warns, is an exercise in futility in a capitalist system.
And in Virtues of vice:
REGRETTABLE though it may be, the wages of sin can be well worth having. Vice Fund, a mutual fund started 14 months ago by, a Dallas investment company, is profiting nicely from what some would consider the wickedest corners of the legitimate economy: alcohol, arms, gambling and tobacco. So far this year, Vice Fund has returned 17.2% to investors, beating both the S&P 500 (15.2%) and the Dow Jones industrial average (13.2%) by a few points.
Then I did a search for "'social justice' and socially responsible" and came up with all of this. Indeed, as Samurai Appliance Repair Man says, it looks as if "social justice" is using
government force to steal the fruits of your labor (usually money via taxation) that you've honestly earned through your own work and creativity and give it to bureaucrats and other leeches who did nothing to earn it.
For the leftist, "justice" or "fairness" means economic inequality is unfair, and to say otherwise makes no sense to them. But on the other hand, does that mean everyone should receive the same rewards, no matter what the quality of their work is? Should an unskilled floor-sweeper earn the same as someone who risks his life in the course of his work? Should a ditch-digger earn the same as a surgeon? Should an incompetent surgeon (or ditch-digger) earn the same as their competent counterpart? Is that fair? To get back to Ms. Mancias
"There is one cause, and the one cause is we oppose the Bush administration's agenda, and under that umbrella are many, many issues," said Mancias, who cited the president's policies regarding abortion, the environment and fair trade as other concerns.

Even though I'm opposed to the right-wing positions on abortion, gay marriage, and the role of religion in daily life, those are certainly "issues" that demonstrate a social consciousness, social responsibility, and even a concern with social justice.

Thursday, January 13

Infant Mortality

In Health Care? Ask Cuba, Nicholas Kristof writes,
China's dictators have managed to drive down the infant mortality rate in Beijing to 4.6 per thousand; in contrast, New York City's rate is 6.5.
But the national average for China's infant mortality rate is:
    • total: 25.28 deaths/1,000 live births
    • male: 21.84 deaths/1,000 live births
    • female: 29.14 deaths/1,000 live births (2004 est.)
    And compare the US infant mortality rate:
    • total: 6.63 deaths/1,000 live births
    • male: 7.31 deaths/1,000 live births
    • female: 5.91 deaths/1,000 live births (2004 est.)
    While the US infant mortality rate is appallingly high, China's rural infant mortality rate is much worse than the urban rate, and even worse for female infants. I imagine it's partly intentional female infanticide, but also intentional or unintentional neglect of what are for the Chinese less desirable children.

    I'm not surprised

    The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience--Why don't Christians live what they preach? by Ronald J. Sider:
    Scandalous behavior is rapidly destroying American Christianity. By their daily activity, most "Christians" regularly commit treason. With their mouths they claim that Jesus is Lord, but with their actions they demonstrate allegiance to money, sex, and self-fulfillment.

    The findings in numerous national polls conducted by highly respected pollsters like The Gallup Organization and The Barna Group are simply shocking. "Gallup and Barna," laments evangelical theologian Michael Horton, "hand us survey after survey demonstrating that evangelical Christians are as likely to embrace lifestyles every bit as hedonistic, materialistic, self-centered, and sexually immoral as the world in general."
    Also, the distinction between born-again Christians and evangelicals:
    ...[George] Barna makes a distinction between born-again Christians and evangelicals. Barna classifies as born-again all who say "they have made a personal commitment to Jesus Christ that is still important in their life today" and who also indicate that they "believe that when they die they will go to heaven because they have confessed their sins and accepted Jesus Christ as their Savior." In Barna's polls anywhere from 35 to 43 percent of the total U.S. population meet these criteria for being born-again.

    Barna limits the term "evangelical" to a much smaller group—just 7 to 8 percent of the total U.S. population. In addition to meeting the criteria for being born-again, evangelicals must agree with several other things such as the following: Jesus lived a sinless life; eternal salvation is only through grace, not works; Christians have a personal responsibility to evangelize non-Christians; Satan exists. Obviously this definition identifies a much more theologically biblical, orthodox group of Christians.
    In all fairness, Christians aren't the only hypocrites around. But this certainly lends support to my suspicion that religion doesn't make one better. Or would these believers be even worse without religion?

    Israel keeps Arab societies together

    A World Without Israel by Josef Joffe:
    ...Israel has become the target of creeping delegitimization. The denigration comes in two guises. The first, the soft version, blames Israel first and most for whatever ails the Middle East, and for having corrupted U.S. foreign policy. It is the standard fare of editorials around the world, not to mention the sheer venom oozing from the pages of the Arab-Islamic press. The more recent hard version zeroes in on Israel’s very existence. According to this dispensation, it is Israel as such, and not its behavior, that lies at the root of troubles in the Middle East...

    Those who think that the Middle East conflict is a "Muslim-Jewish thing" had better take a closer look at the score card: 14 years of sectarian bloodshed in Lebanon; Saddam’s campaign of extinction against the Shia in the aftermath of the first Gulf War; Syria’s massacre of 20,000 people in the Muslim Brotherhood stronghold of Hama in 1982; and terrorist violence against Egyptian Christians in the 1990s. Add to this tally intraconfessional oppression, such as in Saudi Arabia, where the fundamentalist Wahhabi sect wields the truncheon of state power to inflict its dour lifestyle on the less devout...

    A common enmity toward Israel is the only thing that prevents Arab modernizers and traditionalists from tearing their societies apart. Fundamentalists vie against secularists and reformist Muslims for the fusion of mosque and state under the green flag of the Prophet. And a barely concealed class struggle pits a minuscule bourgeoisie and millions of unemployed young men against the power structure, usually a form of statist cronyism that controls the means of production. Far from creating tensions, Israel actually contains the antagonisms in the world around it.

    ...Would the Islamic world hate the United States less if Israel vanished? Like all what-if queries, this one, too, admits only suggestive evidence...Take the Cairo Declaration against "U.S. hegemony," endorsed by 400 delegates from across the Middle East and the West in December 2002. The lengthy indictment mentions Palestine only peripherally. The central condemnation, uttered in profuse variation, targets the United States for monopolizing power "within the framework of capitalist globalization," for reinstating "colonialism," and for blocking the "emergence of forces that would shift the balance of power toward multi-polarity." In short, Global America is responsible for all the afflictions of the Arab world, with Israel coming in a distant second.
    So it's not Israel that's evil, it's the US. But we all knew that.

    Be nice, and you won't be sued

    You Can Judge This Book by Its Cover, a review of Blink, Malcolm Gladwell's study of intuition:
    Physicians who seem warm and empathetic - traits that can be sensed in a blink - are less likely to be sued by their patients, regardless of the number of errors they commit.
    I'm willing to excuse a certain degree of incompetence in people who are nice. But medical malpractice?

    You must consider this

    Mark Steyn's Coalition of the giving:
    ...consider this: a single Saudi telethon in 2002 managed to raise $US56 million. That was for widows and orphans of Palestinian suicide bombers, those deceased as well as those yet to blow. It seems nothing gets the wealthy elite of Riyadh and Jeddah adding the zeroes to the cheques like self-detonating on an Israeli bus. usual, when disaster strikes it's the Great Satan and his various Little Satans who leap to respond. In the decade before September 11, the US military functioned, more or less exclusively, as a Muslim rapid reaction force – coming to the aid of Kuwaiti Muslims, Bosnian Muslims, Somali Muslims and Albanian Muslims. Since then, with the help of its Anglo-Australian allies, it's liberated 50 million Muslims in Afghanistan and Iraq. can't help noticing that when disaster strikes, it's the warmongers who are also the compassion-mongers. Of the top six donor nations to tsunami relief, four are members of George W. Bush's reviled "coalition of the willing".

    ... Jeez, man, would it kill you once in a while just to send a box of chocolates and a card saying "Thank you, you infidel sons of whores and pigs", and leave it at that?
    A kiss is just a kiss.

    Choosing one's problems

    A couple of interesting nuggets of info in How Sweden Tweaked the Washington Consensus by Daniel Brook. First of all, hatred of the US is nothing new. Second, unionization is not incompatible with free trade.
    ...the American political economy has long been reviled in Swedish public opinion for its class hierarchies and militarism. Under Richard Nixon, the United States essentially cut off diplomatic ties with Sweden over Prime Minister Palme's criticism of the Vietnam War.

    ...the one aspect of neoliberalism that the Swedes wholeheartedly embrace is the aspect Americans are most ambivalent about: free trade. The fondness of Swedes for condemning America's religiosity, racism, state-sponsored executions, and extreme inequality is surpassed only by their glee in pointing out how much better they are at following Washington-consensus policies on free trade than the current administration in Washington (or the Democrats vying to replace it). Many Swedes on both the left and right brought up George W. Bush's hypocrisy in preaching free trade and at the same time defending steel tariffs and farm subsidies.

    It is no surprise that the libertarian right in Sweden backs free trade. What is surprising is the support on the left; the near-universal unionization rates in Sweden make the country's trade policy less protectionist, not more. In the United States, it is often labor unions that call for tariffs and subsidies to protect unionized industries. Not so in Sweden. "We don't want to sell T-shirts made in Sweden because people can't live on those wages. It's good that those industries have moved away," explained Social Democratic Parliament member Mikael Damberg, sounding very unlike an American congressmember of either party. In Sweden, where equitable distribution of corporate profits is assumed, the focus can be on growing those profits even if it means economic dislocation for some in the short-run...

    Choosing between the American and Swedish systems is a matter of choosing one's problems. Is it better to have higher rewards for those at the top or free higher education available to all? Is it better to ensure that no one who works full time lives in poverty or that every immigrant who is willing to work hard at a low-skill job can find one? Should the government be more concerned that its citizens can raise healthy families or build healthy companies? There are trade-offs between equality and economic growth, and each society must strike its own balance...

    Wednesday, January 12

    Sgt. Rafael Peralta, American Hero

    Rich Lowry wrote:
    You probably don't know Rafael Peralta's name. If we lived in a country that more fully celebrated the heroics of its men in uniform, you would. He was a sergeant in Company A, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment for Operation Dawn, the November offensive to retake the Iraqi city of Fallujah, which had become a haven for terrorists. What he did on the day of Nov. 15 was an awe-inspiring act of selfless sacrifice and faithfulness to his fellow Marines.

    The only way we can honor Sgt. Peralta's heroism is to tell his story and remember his name. What follows is mostly drawn from the reporting of Marine combat correspondent Lance Cpl. T.J. Kaemmerer, who witnessed the events on that day.

    Sgt. Peralta, 25, was a Mexican-American. He joined the Marines the day after he got his green card and earned his citizenship while in uniform. He was fiercely loyal to the ethos of the Corps. While in Kuwait, waiting to go into Iraq, he had his camouflage uniform sent out to be pressed. He constantly looked for opportunities to help his Marine brothers, which is why he ended up where he was on Nov. 15. A week into the battle for Fallujah, the Marines were still doing the deadly work of clearing the city, house by house. As a platoon scout, Peralta didn't have to go out with the assault team that day. He volunteered to go.

    According to Kaemmerer, the Marines entered a house and kicked in the doors of two rooms that proved empty. But there was another closed door to an adjoining room. It was unlocked, and Peralta, in the lead, opened it. He was immediately hit with AK-47 fire in his face and upper torso by three insurgents. He fell out of the way into one of the cleared rooms to give his fellow Marines a clear shot at the enemy. During the firefight, a yellow fragmentation grenade flew out of the room, landing near Peralta and several fellow Marines. The uninjured Marines tried to scatter out of the way, two of them trying to escape the room, but were blocked by a locked door. At that point, barely alive, Peralta grabbed the grenade and cradled it to his body.

    His body took most of the blast. One Marine was seriously injured, but the rest sustained only minor shrapnel wounds. Cpl. Brannon Dyer told a reporter from the Army Times, "He saved half my fire team."
    (via Villainous Company) It's too bad we've got to be ironic all the time.

    Bad security

    We got back from Paris a day late because (according to a later announcement we received on the plane) on the morning of January 10th, several passengers and baggage had gotten onto planes without proper clearance, so all passengers in Terminal 2A had to leave the gate area and go through security again. Crowd control/contingency planning was virtually nil, with one or two people at the front of the crowd of about a thousand to "reculer", with no one else at the back of the crowd telling them to move back so the crowd had somewhere to go. Then the hundreds of passengers were not formed into a line, and so crushed to get into a single line leading back to passport and security check. So our plane was four hours late leaving, and because the crew wasn't allowed to work long enough to go to our original destination (Dallas), the plane was diverted (to NYC) for a change of crew, leaving our arrival in Dallas too late for any flight to St. Louis. Fortunately, AA paid for a room, and we left the next AM for St. Louis.

    Sunday, January 9

    Movie memories

    While we were in Paris, we had hoped to see some movies. It is already a few years ago that my mother brought me and my wife to see Trees Lounge (1996), written and directed by Steve Buscemi. She said my father wouldn't like it because he didn't like stories about losers. My wife and I later saw Bobby G. Can't Swim (1999) written and directed by John-Luke Montias, another film about losers which we also liked. I think my mother had started to have memory troubles by that time, because I seem to remember seeing Memento (2000) and not knowing what to say about it in front of them, because my father was trying to pretend there was no problem. Still, I also remember she and my father went to see Woody Allen's Small Time Crooks (2000), which so incensed my father that since then he no longer wants to see any Woody Allen movie. Meanwhile I myself hadn't really like Woody Allen since Love and Death (1975), so I was gratified that my father disliked him, but then on the plane back from seeing my parents in Paris, my wife and I saw it and it cracked us up. We suspect my father, who is fond of deluding himself, saw too much of himself in the movie.

    Anyway, I thought about those loser movies this year when we saw Greg Marcks' 11:14 (2003), which apparently still hasn't been released in the US, about a bunch of different storylines that converge at the time of the title, and it's not till the end that you realize how they fit together. In retrospect, it's a hokey device, but I found it well done, and the actors were pretty believable. It reminded me a little of John Herzfeld's 2 Days in the Valley (1996) or John McNaughton's Wild Things (1998), both of which I enjoyed.

    Speaking of devices hokey in retrospect, we also saw Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), which my wife couldn't watch because of the jumpy camera work. I liked it quite a bit, even though I caught on to exactly where it was going pretty soon. So many love stories put in scenes of the lovers together meant to show how much they love each other but that just look dumb to me, but here the desire to hold on to every memory made those scenes poignant for once. Funny, none of that really seems to be affected by the parental state.

    Finally we saw Lost in Translation, which I didn't like, but hadn't expected to. As Donald Levit wrote,
    Incongruously billed as "a valentine . . . to the city of Tokyo," the film images that megalopolis as repellent, mindless, neon and noisy, its few English speakers laughably unintelligible out of old racist stereotypes. Worse, the nation and its culture are handled with jarring provincial condescension and contempt.
    Absolutely. So much for political correctness. I couldn't help but feel that it was Sofia Coppola’s very adolescent fantasy of a meeting with an understanding older man, possibly written when she was tagging along with her own famous daddy. But finally, I just couldn't understand why they didn't leave the hotel more. For long periods of my life, in Paris, NYC and Taipei I felt out of place and disconnected, and I got out and saw the city. Coppola's or the the characters' lack of interest in Tokyo struck me as terribly provincial.

    It could happen to you

    My parents' situation has gotten just a little worse compared to last year. One difference is that just after we got here, my mother started to have some trouble walking. I think it's mostly joint pain, but my father refuses to take her to the doctor. When she tries to a take a few halting steps she often wants to hold on to something; my father interprets that as fear of falling, but I don't think it's actually fear. The trouble walking means they've stopped their morning jaunts to the cafe and their evening trips to their beloved Galway Pub, so my mother spends almost the entire day in bed. However, my mother still gets up in the middle of the night and tried to come into our bedroom; she's not sure where she is. They seem to be bathing even less than they did last year, so together with her kotexes, it often smells pretty ripe. Looking back at what I wrote last year, I can't point to anything to show her mental faculties have declined appreciably, although she hasn't been able to call my wife by her name correctly once.

    They're not old, they're back in the Middle Ages. According to Cecil Adams:
    In the Middle Ages public baths had been available in larger towns; while these were more recreational than hygienic and often did a good side business as brothels, you could get clean if you wanted to. In the wake of the plague, though, Europeans decided baths were dangerous. Hot water allowed toxins to penetrate the skin--better to keep the pores caulked with healthy grime. A grossed-out Muslim in the Arabian Nights suggested that once Christians were doused with baptismal water they felt entitled to avoid bathing for the rest of their lives. Personal grooming, such as it was, focused entirely on appearances. People washed their faces and hands sometimes but refused to immerse their entire bodies except on doctors' orders. The rich drenched themselves with perfume to conceal odor. Lice and fleas were universal, etiquette requiring merely that one refrain from scratching conspicuously in public. People were used to a baseline level of putridity; to attract attention, you had to really reek.

    This noxious state of affairs persisted for centuries. One small step forward was the wearing of underclothing, preferably of white linen--dirt would rub off on the linen, which you could wash every few weeks without having to wash yourself.
    That's about how life is for my parents now, and who knows, maybe for me in the future.

    That American censorship kills me.

    This is part of an article from Saturday's Aujourd'hui en France about blogs, mostly viewed as an avenue for adolescent confession. The third paragraph says that "the most famous are those of American journalists who have chosen this avenue free of all censorship to tell about the war in Iraq in their own way."

    Wednesday, January 5

    And you thought it was humanitarian aid

    As Asians Offer Much Aid, Chinese Role Is Limited by Anthony Faiola and Philip P. Pan:
    Several Asian countries, led by Japan, have responded swiftly to the plight of their stricken neighbors, generating a major share of global relief aid and mobilizing as never before to help the region cope with a natural catastrophe.

    But the response has also underscored the limitations of China -- a fast-growing economic powerhouse that nevertheless has not been able to offer anywhere near the amount of aid provided by Japan, the United States or Britain.

    China is viewed by many experts as heir to the financial and political influence in South Asia now enjoyed by Japan and the United States. It has actively cultivated relations with South Asian countries in recent years and has mustered one of its largest foreign disaster assistance packages ever.

    But the $64 million offered by Beijing has been dwarfed by the massive pledge of $500 million from Japan, the largest donor to the relief effort. Moreover, China is ill-equipped to launch major rescue operations. It has deployed only several dozen medical personnel to the disaster zone, while the United States has sent 13,000 troops to help.

    The contrast is a reminder of the ways in which China is still significantly restricted in its capabilities. Its booming economy has led to greater influence, as smaller nations seek trade and investment. But China remains poor, with low average incomes and a relatively weak military...
    And it's not just Japan that makes China look small. South Korea and Taiwan between them are offering more than China:
    In addition to Japan and China, South Korea and Taiwan have each pledged $50 million. Singapore has pledged more than $3 million.
    Actually, it's not just about humanitarian aid:
    Analysts said there was much more than philanthropic superiority at stake. For one thing, there could be significant windfalls from the billions of dollars worth of contracts expected to come from affected nations as they begin reconstruction.

    "Japan is afraid of losing influence and business in that region to China," said Masaaki Okamoto of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Japan's Kyoto University. "Giving aid is one way to ensure Japan's continued dominant role in South Asia."
    That works for the US, too, then. If we don't give, we're stingy, but if we do, it's because we not only want to maintain our clout in the region, it's also because we want the reconstruction contracts.

    Tuesday, January 4

    Why can't we all just get along?

    There very well may be a downside to John J. Miller's argument that
    ...if France threatens to undermine American interests with its Security Council veto, we should call its bluff, pointing out that such behavior merely weakens the institution that is the prime source of France's undeserved prestige.
    At the same time, I also agree with Antoine Audouard that the US media is excessively anti-French. However, he might have mentioned that the French media are pretty anti-American. Of course, there's a lot of bad feeling all around. Just take domestic American politics. Is the vitriol (on all sides) really necessary?