Wednesday, July 30, 2003

The Economist Ponders the BBC's Future

Who should regulate the BBC? And who should pay for it? Until recently, the status quo looked unshakeable. On important questions, like whether its journalists were biased, the BBC would regulate itself, just as it always has. And when its charter comes up for renewal in 2006, few doubted that it would gain another juicy increase in the licence fee, the annual tax paid by every television-owning household in Britain, which currently stands at �116 ($186).

Since the row over Iraq's arsenal, those questions look more interesting and open. The BBC has never managed complaints well: robust self-scrutiny is not a strong point of its bureaucratic, inward-looking culture. The final court of appeal is the 11-strong board of governors. But the governors also appoint the BBC's director-general, which critics say makes them too close to the organisation to be able to regulate it properly.

The government certainly feels that its complaint over Andrew Gilligan's reporting was badly handled. The governors leapt to Mr Gilligan's defence, largely echoing the BBC management's line and admitting only minor procedural flaws in the reporting of the story. In retrospect, the governors might have done better to wait for a formal complaint from the government and then to investigate it with visible thoroughness, rather than rushing to support their own. Reports suggest that some have since voiced private doubts, but too late to dispel government fury.

[............]

The much bigger question is about future financing. Technology is steadily undermining the BBC's main justification for the licence fee: that as everyone benefits from at least some of its services, everyone should pay. Viewing figures are dropping steadily as viewers turn to digital television, which now reaches nearly half the households in the country. The BBC's response so far has been to provide ever more services. Sometimes this is uncontentious—for example in digital radio, now booming, which would never have taken off without BBC backing. But other offerings are controversial—internet-based education, for example, or a specialist history channel that competes directly with an independent commercial outfit. An outside regulator could stop the BBC from treading on so many private-sector toes.

Falling viewing figures have not created a financial problem for the BBC, since thanks to the government's generosity the licence fee has been rising at 1.7% above inflation since Labour came to power. But big rows with politicians could undermine the chances of a similarly lavish settlement in 2006.
Personally, I think the BBC's television tax should simply be abolished outright, or at the very least, slashed in half. Funding for the BBC's World Service radio broadcasting I can understand, but do we really need a proliferation of BBC-branded television channels, all funded on the public's dime yet accountable to no one, not even to their prospective audience?

Of course, knowing the British public's distaste for radical measures, this will never happen. British gradualism certainly has many merits in its' favor, but boldly doing away with outmoded institutions certainly isn't one of them.

Inaction in Liberia

I'd hoped that the lip service Bush paid to Liberia in the course of his African tour would translate into actual policies, but it seems that my hopes were unfounded:

Crunch Time: The Economist on Liberia

WILL America help Liberia? Refugees in the embattled capital of Monrovia desperately hope so. Hundreds of civilians have died there in the past two weeks amid a surge of fighting between rebels and government troops. Many of the living have fled to the city’s diplomatic quarter, hoping for safety. But the shooting has continued, with shells even occasionally hitting the American embassy compound. Disease and hunger too have begun to take a toll, as the city is cut off from outside aid.

President George Bush has repeatedly voiced concern for the plight of Liberia, which is in the fourth year of its latest civil war. So far, however, America’s efforts to help have been half-hearted. A contingent of marines is guarding the embassy in Monrovia, and Mr Bush last week dispatched over 2,000 more marines to anchor off the Liberian coast. Their mission, he said, would be to support West African peacekeepers (who have not yet arrived). This is far from the few thousand American peacekeepers on the ground that refugees crowding into Monrovia had hoped for.

Kofi Annan, secretary-general of the United Nations, has called on America to do more, by sending peacekeepers into the country. But America has refused to go in alone, insisting that such a force should be led by Liberia's neighbours. Some 1,300 Nigerian troops are said to be on their way, but regional leaders have insisted in the past that peacekeepers will only go in if a ceasefire—as yet elusive—holds. If America were to commit troops, Mr Bush has imposed yet another condition: the departure of Charles Taylor, the Liberian president who has been charged with war crimes for his role in Sierra Leone’s gruesome civil war. Mr Taylor has repeatedly promised to step down and leave (Nigeria has offered to give him exile), but he has never done so.

The Pentagon appears to be behind America’s foot-dragging. Officials there, despite their eager denunciations of Saddam Hussein’s brutality, have little love for humanitarian missions. America’s ties to Liberia are seen as historical (Liberia was founded by freed American slaves in the 19th century) rather than strategic, though Liberia’s war has contributed to instability in the region. Pentagon officials also worry about the scarcity of manpower following the massive deployment to Iraq. Mr Bush’s decision to move marines closer to Liberia is likely a compromise between the Pentagon (which is said to have been taken aback by the deployment) and the more pro-intervention State Department, whose boss, Colin Powell, has said that America should make sure West Africa “doesn't simply come apart”.

For Mr Bush, this half-measure may not be enough to deflect the growing pressure to commit peacekeepers. African conflicts do not often get coverage on America’s nightly news. But the flare-up in Monrovia, where angry locals have piled dead bodies outside the American embassy’s gates in protest, has riveted plenty of Americans, who may be feeling receptive to humanitarian missions after the ousting of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. From their ships offshore, the marines should be able to deploy rapidly into the streets should Mr Bush call on them to take a more active role. For desperate refugees in Monrovia, the arrival of foreign troops—be they Nigerian or, preferably, American—cannot come soon enough.

Friday, July 18, 2003

Irresponsible Politics

I know that it is the rule in politics to strike one's opponents precisely when they are down, but the big fuss being made by the Democrats about the so-called "16 Words" - namely that Bush said "the British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium from Africa" - strikes me as wrongheaded in the extreme.

Nor is it enough for the Democrats to have attempted to make a great fuss out of such a minor issue; it seems they now feel that even British domestic politics is within their remit, if it serves their own partisan priorities. According to the Daily Telegraph,

Mr Blair was due to appear at the White House for a joint press conference in which questions about the uranium claim seemed sure to dominate.

Those Democrats who were against the war, or who are now positioning themselves as critics after the fact, saw Mr Blair's visit as an opportunity to go after Mr Bush by exploiting the differences between the two men over the uranium from Niger.

Some 41 House Democrats signed a letter this week calling on Mr Bush to ask Mr Blair to disclose the source of the intelligence that has led Downing Street to stand by the Niger claim even as the White House tried to run away from it.

This is simply a step too far! Let us leave aside for a moment the fact that the British government has already stated that it cannot compromise the confidentiality of its' sources: do the Democrats really believe that they do themselves or their country any sort of favor by undermining the government of the only country America can depend upon in Europe? Do they really believe that a British government led by Gordon Brown and the extreme left will side with America over Old Europe, even if a Democrat were to win the presidency? Or are the Democrats of the opinion that Europe will cease to matter once their party is in power, and France and Germany will magically return into the embrace of a more "multilateralist" American government?

There is a great deal I dislike about Blair's government; I despise his timidity towards traditional Labour party constitutuencies, I detest his inability to desist from tinkering with the country's institutional arrangements in the name of "modernity", I loathe the patronizing and deceitful arguments put forward by his government about the consequences of the proposed European constitution, I hate all of these things, and have no great desire to see Labour remain in power, but I do not wish to see Blair fall because of his support for a cause that was clearly just, whatever the quality of some of the arguments made for it.

If the Democrats want to see Bush removed from power, I would suggest that they move on from the whole "Bush lied" argument, on to more constructive ground, as Thomas Friedman suggested recently. Rather than refight the battle over the merits of the war in Iraq, they would do better, both from a political and a moral point of view, to talk about winning the peace. It isn't as if there isn't plenty to criticize on that score, as even right-leaning papers like the Daily Telegraph continue to make clear. So what if "Bush lied"? One could equally plausibly argue that FDR pushed America into an unecessary confrontation with Nazi Germany, but no one would dare argue that he was wrong to do so.

Wednesday, July 16, 2003

Winning the Real War

Thomas Friedman has perceptive things to say about the current to-do over whether President Bush "lied" about Iraq's weapons program.

Last Sunday was the most important day in Iraq since the start of the war, and maybe the most important day in its modern history. It was the first day that one could speak about the "liberation" of Iraq. It was the day that a multireligious, multiethnic Governing Council of Iraqi men and women began to assume some power and responsibility for their own country — the most representative leadership Iraq has ever had.

And what was their first act? It was to declare that April 9, the day Saddam Hussein's regime was toppled, would be a national holiday. President Bush, Gen. Tommy Franks and The Weekly Standard could all call April 9 Iraq's V-E Day, but it became real only when the first representative Council of Iraqis embraced that day as their liberation. It is way too early to know whether this appointed Iraqi Council will flourish and pave the way for constitutional government and elections in Iraq, which is its assignment. It will first have to prove itself to the Iraqi people — and prove that while most Iraqis may not want us or Saddam, they do want one another. But these are not quislings, and therefore the Council's formation is a hugely important first step. This is what we came for. There is hope.

Had you been watching most American news shows or cable TV last Sunday, though, you would not have gotten a sense of this. They were focused almost exclusively on who was responsible for hyping Saddam's nuclear arms potential. This is understandable. The notion that the president may have misled the nation into war, and then blamed it on the C.I.A., is a big story.

[......................................]

... according to Peter Bouckaert, senior researcher for emergencies at Human Rights Watch, over 20 mass graves have already been uncovered in Iraq, and there may be as many as 90. One grave alone in Hilla is estimated to contain 10,000 people murdered by Saddam's regime. Human Rights Watch estimates that there are 300,000 people missing in Iraq. President Bush is flailing around looking for Saddam's unused weapons of mass destruction, when evidence of his actual mass destruction is all over the place in Iraq. Yet the Pentagon has done almost nothing to help Iraqis properly exhume these graves, prepare evidence for a war crimes tribunal or expose this mass murder to the world.

Eyes on the prize, please. If we find W.M.D. in Iraq, but lose Iraq, Mr. Bush will not only go down as a failed president, but one who made the world even more dangerous for Americans. If we find no W.M.D., but build a better Iraq — one that proves that a multiethnic, multireligious Arab state can rule itself in a decent way — Mr. Bush will survive his hyping of the W.M.D. issue, and the world will be a more hospitable and safer place for all Americans.

Winds of Change.NET - AfricaPundit's Regional Briefing

AfricaPundit gives a regular continental briefing on African events that is worth paying attention to for those who are interested in that neglected continent. Of particular interest is the following snippet:

Zimbabwe's tyrant-in-chief has apparently pulled off another diplomatic coup by getting his country appointed to a senior position in the African Union. This occurs despite continued calls from American officials for African governments to put increasing pressure on Mugabe's government. Apparently "African solidarity" trumps all other considerations.

Why, yes it does; as I've said before, African rulers certainly know how to stick together. This ought to erode any uncertainty left in the minds of those who might have doubted my scepticism about the Independent's story (see below).

The Iranian Nuclear Program Must be Destroyed!

Here is an excerpt from an article in the latest print edition of the Economist(requires subscription access):

A FIRST report, last month, by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN's nuclear watchdog, expressed “concern” at a string of previously undeclared nuclear activities in Iran. A second damning report, when the agency's board meets in September, could raise a storm. So on July 9th Mohamed ElBaradei, the IAEA's director-general, was in Tehran hoping to find answers to the questions in his June report, and to win Iran's acceptance of toughened safeguards.

[...............................]

Mr ElBaradei wants to know why Iran produced uranium metal, not needed for its planned nuclear reactors, but handy for making bombs. And why build a heavy-water research reactor, ideal for making bomb-usable plutonium, when Iran's energy plans depend on light-water reactors? But the IAEA has been keenest to probe Iran's claim that it is building a sophisticated uranium-enrichment plant at Natanz—a pilot plant and a much larger production-scale plant—without ever having done tests with uranium gas to prove its centrifuge machines work. These can produce low-enriched uranium for reactor fuel, or highly enriched uranium for a bomb. Iran is obliged to report either sort of work, but denies flatly it has done any.

Iran shrugged off the agency's June report, which detailed its undeclared import in 1991 of 1.8 tonnes of natural uranium (from China, although the IAEA does not say so), claiming that its safeguards agreement did not require it to do so. When some of this material was found to be missing—1.9kg of uranium hexafluoride—Iran blamed leaky cylinder valves. Was it used instead for testing centrifuges?

While, from a purely humanitarian viewpoint, it is a shame that the Iranian student protests planned for the 9th of July turned out to have been such a damp squib, in a larger sense I think it fortunate that they petered out. Attacking an Iran in which the reform movement was making real political progress would have been a difficult proposition to advance, and it is extremely unlikely that even a more democratic Iranian government would be likely to desist from attempting to acquire nuclear weapons. Faced with a choice between the destruction of Iran's entire weapons infrastructure by force of arms, and the blossoming of a "reformist" Iranian leadership, I say "Let the mullahs stay where they are!"

Is my position callous, amoral even? Only if one fails to consider things from the standpoint of self-interest. If the cost of Iranian democracy were non-existent or low, I should have no reason to resist giving it my support, but the last thing the world needs is a highly nationalistic country with the means at its' disposal to destroy Tel Aviv, Berlin, Paris and London. No, not even democracy in Iran is worth that much.

Farewell to Mugabe?

The following article appears in the Independent:

Robert Mugabe will relinquish his leadership of Zimbabwe's ruling party by December, paving the way for his exit as President and new elections by June 2004, the South African President Thabo Mbeki has told George Bush.

The Independent has established that Mr Bush has pledged a reconstruction package for Zimbabwe worth up to $10bn (?6.2bn) over an unspecified timeframe, if a new leader takes over.

[...........................]

Mr Bush surprised Zimbabwe opposition figures when at a press conference after the Pretoria meeting he presented a united front with Mr Mbeki, and declared him the "point man" on Zimbabwe.

Privately Mr Bush is said to have exerted pressure on the South African President by indicating that South African companies would benefit from the aid package for Zimbabwe, since many of them would be well placed to bid for contracts. South African firms are owed huge amounts of money by Zimbabwe, mainly for fuel and electricity supplies.

Evidence that Mr Mugabe has promised to quit his party post in December is emerging from within the ruling party, where distinct factions are already vying to succeed him.

Personally, I am sceptical as to the veracity of this story; there is simply too much about it that fails to ring true. That President Bush would be willing to pledge $10 billion to the reconstruction of Zimbabwe, of all countries, strikes me as too absurd to be believed. Why would he do such a thing for a country that has no domestic constitutuencies or strategic value, when more strategically important entities like Pakistan and the Palestinian Authority have failed to enjoy such munificence?

Then there is the African Big Man Disease to consider. How likely is it that an old fashioned African despot like Mugabe would ever cede power anywhere other than on his deathbed? Add the remote possibility of this happening to the unimportance of Zimbabwe in American eyes, and the odds are very much against this story being true. The fact is that if there were no white farmers in Zimbabwe, the crisis unfolding there would not enjoy even the limited press it has had thus far.

Horizontal Gene Transfer in Plants

I came across an interesting article in the most recent edition of Nature, in which is disclosed the discovery that horizontal gene transfer between distantly related plants is, far from being merely a dangerous tool of reckless researchers tampering with the stuff of life, in fact commonplace in nature! How will the anti-GM campaigners reconcile this discovery with their platform, I wonder? Of course, this assumes that they actually bother to read the scientific literature anyway, or that they'd be willing to publicly acknowledge information that contradicted their viewpoint, even if they were aware of said information.

*[Nature, Vol. 424, 10 July 2003, Page 197: "Widespread Horizontal Transfer of Mitochondrial Genes in Flowering Plants", U. Bergthorsson, K.L. Adams, et al.]

Sunday, July 13, 2003

Howard Dean to Guest Blog for Lawrence Lessig

I wonder how spontaneous one can really expect something like this to be. It looks more likely to me that whatever goes up under Dean's name will owe as much to his personal thoughts as Hillary's Living History owed to hers ...

It's a shame that the link to the actual announcement has been slashdotted, as I'd have liked to have read it firsthand. Whatever comes of this move, it ought to be interesting. Dean is shaping up to be a master of self-promotion, that's for certain; it would be foolish for either his Democratic competitors or President Bush to underestimate him.

To Comment or not to Comment?

Asymmetrical Information's Mindless H. Dreck has a post up on the supposed drawbacks of reader feedback via comments. Personally, I find myself in total disagreement with what he has to say, and not just because I have a lot less traffic to handle than he does.

The best form of blog feedback seems to be when someone else blogs on it on their own site ... the problem is that the comments (good and bad) are bundled together with an individual post, and email is pushed upon you. A link, however, is yours to follow, and the author's to "wear" on his own site.

The natural Usenet laws that apply to email and comment forums are less operative when people write on their own site. I believe this is because they have to place it in the context of their own writings and online identity-- there's less bluster, more proofreading and no attempt to simply achieve some kind of verbal graffiti. Finally, an entry on someone else's site doesn't seem to sit there demanding a response (because it is 'bundled' with your post) as it does when it's in your inbox or a post on your blog.

Where he sees a "problem", I see an advantage - what could be better than to have a comment and the responses to it bundled together in the same convenient spot, rather than having to chase them down by following any number of links, assuming that the original commentator even bothers to provide links to those responses of which he may be aware?

What we are seeing here is a clash between two fundamentally opposed visions of what online communication should be about. On the one hand we have the old-style publishing model, in which readers are thought of as passive consumers of "product"; at best they may write in to the Editor with their comments on what they've read, but whether or not their responses see the light of day is left entirely to the Editor's discretion.

The second model in contention is that of the blog as salon, with a host who facilitates the discussion by introducing the subject matter, but otherwise grants the other participants the freedom to respond either to him or to each other, as the fancy takes them. This alternative is potentially a lot messier than the publishing model, since there is no telling where the conversation might lead; there is always the possiblity that the blogger may get shown up as an ignorant ass! But this, to my mind, is precisely what makes the salon model more attractive than the vision of blogging as publishing-on-the-cheap. The world has more than enough opinionated blowhards as it is: what it needs is more genuine intellectual give-and-take, which reader comments are uniquely positioned to provide.

AIDS as a Test of American Compassion

The following editorial appears in today's New York Times:

President Bush's successful trip to Africa this week is emblematic of a larger journey. As a presidential candidate, Mr. Bush was dismissive of Africa's importance to American interests. Now he has become only the third American president, and the first Republican, to make an extended visit to sub-Saharan Africa. Over five days in five countries, he addressed a variety of important themes: the cruel legacy of slavery, the current crises in Liberia and Zimbabwe, and most important, the challenge of AIDS and America's commitment to helping Africa fight it with treatment and prevention programs that can save millions of lives.

Nearly 30 million Africans are now infected with the virus that causes AIDS. Almost 60 percent of the infected adults are women. More than 3 million African children are also infected, and more than 11 million have lost parents to the disease. Cash-starved health systems cannot cope. Four million H.I.V. and AIDS sufferers in Africa need treatment, but only 50,000 currently get it.

Mr. Bush has promised to spend $15 billion over the next five years, two-thirds of it new money, to fight H.I.V. and AIDS in especially hard-hit countries, 12 of them African. His goal is to provide treatment for two million people and prevent another seven million from becoming infected. But even if Mr. Bush's goals are met, infection rates will continue to climb, and more than half of those needing treatment will still not be able to get it.

Every dollar of Mr. Bush's program is needed, along with equally ambitious efforts by other wealthy countries. Yet Republican lawmakers in Congress are trying to make sharp cuts in next year's spending. Mr. Bush needs to fight for the $3 billion annual installment Congress voted in May.

[............]

Regrettably, only $200 million a year will be channeled through the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, set up by the United Nations. This organization is already up and running smoothly, with many promising proposals but not enough funds. It seems a waste of time and money to set up a parallel bureaucracy when America's AIDS dollars could be saving additional lives today.

While I share the Times' concern about the effort by Republican congressmen to cut funding for Bush's AIDS initiative, I am not so sure that the intention of bypassing the United Nations is such a bad idea. Let's face it, the UN's record on these matters is pretty abysmal, and its' administrators are often sorely lacking in accountability.


Saturday, July 12, 2003

Tom Tomorrow on the Pat Robertson-Charles Taylor Nexus

Tom Tomorrow has a rather relevant cartoon up about Pat Robertson's defence of Charles Taylor's Liberian "government." Mining concessions can make for strange bedfellows ...

For more information on the link between Robertson and Taylor, and how it ties in to Al-Qaeda, you could do worse than check out this entry at Calpundit. What was that again about there being no strategic American interests at stake in Liberia?

Friday, July 11, 2003

The Stagnant Nature of France's Political Class

   An interesting note found at new groupblog Crooked Timber, on the staying power French politicians, who never seem to really leave office once they've gotten into it, practicing instead the French version of Musical Chairs.
    I lay the blame firmly at the feet of the ENA (Ecole Nationale d'Adiministration) myself; there is something extremely unhealthy about a hermetically sealed world of power-brokers who consider themselves ordained to steer a nation's fortunes, solely because they happened to do well on an exam long ago in the past. Even the British political class isn't as top heavy with Oxbridge graduates as France's is with Enarques.

The Next Green Revolution - by Norman Borlaug

Today seems to be a good day for the New York Times in terms of Op-Ed quality control; this is the second contribution I've found worthy of linking to.

The key to economic development in Africa is agriculture. As President Bush concludes his trip to the continent, and Americans ponder ways to help it emerge from decades of poverty and turmoil, we would do well to remember that crucial point. Fortunately, we have the economic and technological means to bring about an agricultural revolution.

Using proven agricultural techniques, Africa could easily double or triple the yields of most of its crops. It has the potential not only to feed itself but even to become a dynamic agricultural exporter within a few decades.

African farmers face three main problems: depleted soil, a scarcity of water and distorted economics caused in large part by primitive transportation systems. None of these problems is beyond our capacity to solve.

Low soil fertility is one of the greatest biological obstacles to increasing food production and improving land productivity. (Because of overfarming and insufficient crop rotation, Africa's soil is actually less rich than it was 30 years ago.) Yet there is a man-made solution to the sub-Saharan soil's lack of nutrients — namely, fertilizer, either chemical or organic. Unfortunately, economic forces keep fertilizer out of many African farmers' hands.

Because of transportation costs, fertilizer costs two to three times more in rural sub-Saharan Africa than it does in rural Asia. As a result, fertilizer consumption in Africa is about 10 percent what it is in Asia. That's a market failure, and it could be remedied by a mix of public and private programs. Aid organizations might buy fertilizer at its point of entry into Africa and distribute it at reduced cost to wholesalers. Alternatively, poor farmers might be given fertilizer vouchers.

Chronic water shortages are another challenge. Nearly half of Africa's farmland suffers from periodic and often catastrophic drought. But here, too, the problem isn't beyond our control. About 4 percent of farmland south of the Sahara is irrigated, compared with 17 percent of farmland worldwide.

Large-scale irrigation projects are prohibitively expensive and can ruin villages and ecosystems. But clever, small-scale technologies — including subterranean pools for capturing rainfall, pumps on river banks, and cisterns under drain spouts — can make parched land bloom.

Because of the dismal state of roads in Africa, farmers there face the highest marketing costs in the world. A study by the World Bank, completed in the late 1990's, found that it cost roughly $50 to ship a metric ton of corn from Iowa to Mombasa, Kenya, more than 8,500 miles away. In contrast, it cost $100 or so to move the same amount of corn from Mombasa inland to Kampala, Uganda — about 550 miles. And not much has changed in recent years.

The challenge is that African produce is conveyed to buyers via a vast network of footpaths, tracks and dirt roads, where the most common mode of transport is walking. American- and European-financed road projects would connect farmers with consumers while improving life in countless other ways.

As agriculture takes off, agricultural-improvement and food-aid programs should dovetail. School lunch programs, for example, can provide a significant stimulus to the expansion of commercial food markets if the produce involved is locally grown.

Biotechnology absolutely should be part of African agricultural reform; African leaders will be making a grievous error if they turn their backs on it. (Zambia's president notoriously barred shipments of food aid from America last year that included genetically modified corn.) Genetic technology can help produce plants with greater tolerance of insects and diseases, improve the nutritional quality of food staples and help farmers to expand the areas they cultivate. Rather than looking to European leaders, who have demonized biotechnology, African leaders ought to work to manage and regulate this technology for the benefit of their farmers and citizens.

For those who are unaware of who Norman Borlaug is, let's just say that he has done more for mankind than virtually anyone else alive today. Without him there would have been no green revolution, and the grim scenarios envisioned by neo-Malthusians like Paul Ehrlich would certainly have come to pass. Perhaps a billion people living today owe their lives to this man's efforts. That the likes of Greenpeace and "Friends of the Earth" ("Fiends of the Earth" would be more appropriate) should be given megaphones by the media with which to broadcast their technophobic nonsense, while people, like Borlaug, who have actually done something to better the lives of their fellow men, are ignored, is one of the great injustices of our time.

The Damaging Effects of Agricultural Subsidies

This op-ed in the New York Times, by the presidents of Burkina Faso and Mali, makes the case that First World agricultural subsidies, particularly for cotton in the case of both their countries, help to keep Africans mired in the very poverty which so many Western politicians and opinion-makers give so much lip-service to alleviating.

Cotton is our ticket into the world market. Its production is crucial to economic development in West and Central Africa, as well as to the livelihoods of millions of people there. Cotton accounts for up to 40 percent of export revenues and 10 percent of gross domestic product in our two countries, as well as in Benin and Chad. More than that, cotton is of paramount importance to the social infrastructure of Africa, as well as to the maintenance of its rural areas.

This vital economic sector in our countries is seriously threatened by agricultural subsidies granted by rich countries to their cotton producers. According to the International Cotton Advisory Committee, cotton subsidies amounted to about $5.8 billion in the production year of 2001 to 2002, nearly equal the amount of cotton trade for this same period. Such subsidies lead to worldwide overproduction and distort cotton prices, depriving poor African countries of their only comparative advantage in international trade.

Not only is cotton crucial to our economies, it is the sole agricultural product for our countries to trade. Although African cotton is of the highest quality, our production costs are about 50 percent lower than in developed countries even though we rely on manual labor. In wealthier countries, by contrast, lower-quality cotton is produced on large mechanized farms, generating little employment and having a questionable impact on the environment. Cotton there could be replaced by other, more valuable crops.

In the period from 2001 to 2002, America's 25,000 cotton farmers received more in subsidies — some $3 billion — than the entire economic output of Burkina Faso, where two million people depend on cotton. Further, United States subsidies are concentrated on just 10 percent of its cotton farmers. Thus, the payments to about 2,500 relatively well-off farmers has the unintended but nevertheless real effect of impoverishing some 10 million rural poor people in West and Central Africa.

It is good to see African leaders standing up for the cause of free trade for a change, rather than resorting to the tired old Marxist cant that was popular on the continent until very recently. They are entirely justified in pointing out the hypocricy of Western countries that deign to lecture Africans about their failings while refusing to do anything to help them help themselves. I would be happier if the case for free trade were not being made by characters as unsavory as Campaore*, but one works with what one has at hand, and given a choice only between a left-wing putschist and a free-trading one, I'll take the free-trader anyday.


*Captain Blaise Campaore came to power in 1987 by assasinating Captain Thomas Sankara, with whom he had seized power in a left-wing coup sponsored by Libya in 1983. Although Amadou Toumani Toure also came to power by the gun (in 1991), in his case it was to end 23 years of uninterrupted single party rule in Mali, and a year later he willingly stepped down after a successful multi-party election, which saw Alpha Oumar Konaré ascend to the presidency. Needless to say, this sort of behavior is virtually unheard of in Africa, and it makes Toure only the second military leader to have peacefully relinquished power, after Nigeria's Olusegun Obasanjo.

Thursday, July 10, 2003

Bob Herbert Commits Heresy

I never thought I'd see the day when Bob Herbert would say something that I actually agreed with, but that day has come. Certainly, people on the right like Dinesh D'Souza and John McWhorter have been saying this sort of thing for the longest time, but there's nothing like having one of "your own", i.e. a black liberal who has always toed the Democratic party line, telling it like it is.

Caroline Jhingory had been warned but she was still surprised � and hurt � when some of her lifelong friends turned on her the way they did.

Ms. Jhingory is a 22-year-old black woman from Washington, D.C., who went off to college a few years ago. "One of the connections I had with my friends back home was that we had always been sort of aspiring hip-hop artists and things like that," she said. "But we were young, you know, and I eventually woke up from la-la land and realized that I would have to get an education and a job, something a little more concrete than fantasies about the hip-hop underground."

She noticed that when she came home on visits from school, some of her friends treated her differently. "I don't know if it was out of jealousy or resentment or whatever," she said, "but they would actually say to me, `You're acting white now.' They'd say that. They'd say, `You act white.' Or, `You act proper.' "

Ms. Jhingory had come face to face with the dilemma that many black youngsters encounter as they try to improve their lives by studying, going to college and making other efforts to escape the swarming tentacles of poverty and ignorance. Old friends and sometimes even relatives may see those courageous efforts as a threat, and react bitterly.

"I knew that it would happen because other friends had told me it would happen," said Ms. Jhingory. "But I was surprised that it would happen with friends that I was so close to, people I had grown up with from the time I was maybe 6 or 7. I actually ended friendships because of comments like that. We just couldn't connect anymore because it was just a really negative situation."

I have no idea what the stats are, but I know this perverse peer pressure to do less than your best in scholarly and intellectual pursuits is holding back large numbers of black Americans, especially black boys and men.


What is even more interesting is that Brad DeLong has picked up on the article. I found this slightly surprising, not so much because he is a liberal, as because he is an economist, and as such the issue would seem to have been peripheral to his concerns. But then again, he does come from a social sciences background, so I guess one shouldn't be too surprised.

It would be interesting to have a forthright, no-holds barred discussion of this issue, but I fear that such a thing won't happen. The problem seems ready-made for those on the right who are itching to blame African-Americans for all the problems that befall them, while on the left there is the fear of annoying a major constitutuency, coupled with the notion that one should never "blame the victim." Nevertheless, the truth is that the problem is real - I have seen it with my own eyes, after all - and it does more than anything else to cancel out the hypothetical benefits that might accrue from affirmative action. Too many African-Americans seem to have an external locus of control when it comes to educational achievement, but there is nothing holding back a high-school student of lower middle-class parents from seeking out libraries on his own, or even buying himself a cheap copy of Rudin's "Principles of Mathematical Analysis" and studying it over the summer of graduation, as I did when I was 17. Where African-American education is concerned, for the most part, money is not the issue.

Wednesday, July 09, 2003

Iran Tests the Shahab 3

For anyone doubting the necessity of taking strong measures against the Iranian government's nuclear program, this article should help put those doubts to rest. Those who have been following Iran's missile program more closely will be aware that there is also a Shahab-4, whose range puts much of Europe within reach, as well as a Shahab-5 that would threaten even London. The prospect of being threatened by a nuclear-armed Iran, whose leaders believe themselves ordained by Allah to protect the House of Islam against the Western Infidels, ought to concentrate the minds of Europe's feckless ruling classes, though I suspect it won't.

That Iraq would have been a threat sooner or later, had sanctions been lifted, is beyond doubt. Bush and Blair may have exaggerated the immediate threat from Saddam's regime, but he had to be dealt with sooner or later, and in these things sooner is always better than later. The American public may harbor no appetite for yet another war after Afghanistan and Iraq, but the truth is that they aren't the ones who are most at risk from the Iranian arms program. Traditional strategic considerations like Mutual-Assured-Destruction cannot be assumed to apply in the case of a regime led by religious fundamentalists who are willing to trade life in this world for a more glorious one in the hereafter. The Iranian nuclear program must be destroyed completely, and soon.

Damned if You Do ...

From the Letters page of the New York Times, a certain gentleman resident in Maryland writes:

It is now clear that American "humanitarian" intervention in Liberia and elsewhere in Africa will come at a price: United States military bases in Africa ("Pentagon Seeking New Access Pacts for Africa Bases," front page, July 5). This policy thus has precious little to do with altruism or the protection of human rights, and much more to do with the advancement of American imperial interests around the globe.


Now, pardon me for asking, but why exactly should it matter that American intervention in Liberia should have "precious little to do with altruism"? Does it affect the reality that this intervention is so fervently desired by the citizens of Liberia themselves? There is something very strange and otherworldly about a viewpoint that considers all actions unjustified if those who undertake them stand to benefit in any way. In fact, I'll go further, and say that in this gentleman's case the prime motivator seems to be a need to see a nefarious agenda at work whenever a Republican president happens to be contemplating any foreign policy initiative.

Monday, July 07, 2003

Comments Now Enabled

I've finally gotten around to enabling commenting. I'd welcome (almost) any and all comments you have to make, whether or not you disagree with what I have to say, with one proviso: no blatant insults or ad hominem attacks will be tolerated, nor will any comments that bear too close a resemblance to spam. With that out of the way, please feel free to leave your thoughts, whoever you are.

Europe's Constitution: All Hail the Bureaucracy

About 16 months ago, when the European Union began a constitutional convention of 105 representatives to create a document that would bind more than 25 nations in a new civil union, who knows what might have been possible?

The Declaration of Independence was just a one-page document explaining why 13 colonies felt the need to rebel, but it became a formidable influence and is still being celebrated. Imagine what Europeans might have created: a constitution drawing on centuries of political experience and informed by tragic wisdom borne of millenniums of wars; a document influenced by European philosophers like Hobbes and Rousseau, Hume and Kant, Machiavelli and Montesquieu, who addressed fundamental questions about government and human nature.

It might also have been a belated Old World response to the achievements of the New. In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson and his compatriots could begin with a nearly clean slate: from laws of nature, from truths held self-evident, from unalienable rights, from the notion of "consent of the governed." At that time, European nations could not; they were entrenched in history and heritages � feudal lords and monarchies and priesthoods and stratified classes.

[.........]

Yet faced with this document � the full text, with recently proposed amendments, can be read on the Web at european-convention.eu.int � visions of Hobbes and Locke and Rousseau quickly fade. So does any idea that this document will map out any important ground ... the document ... is marred by such sloppy language and incoherent thought that numerous complaints have already appeared in the international press.

[.........]

This is not the Jeffersonian language of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," with its allusions to the Enlightenment, nor is it the language of the Bill of Rights, which limits government power. This is the language of interest groups, which, enshrined as constitutional rights, will end up guaranteeing the ruling bureaucracy its right to daily bread.