Monday, September 29, 2003

Demise of the Novel Greatly Exaggerated

For my money, I have to say that David Foster Wallace is the single most creative young(ish) writer active today. Not only was Infinite Jest exciting in a way that few writers aspire to any longer, but his Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, though less spectacular in style, was also a fine effort. Dave Eggers hardly stands comparison with DFW, in my opinion, though I have enjoyed Eggers' work with McSweeney's.

Sunday, September 28, 2003

USA Today Poll: Calif. Set to Oust Davis

Truly shocking news:

One week before the vote to recall the two-term Democrat, 63% of probable voters say they'll vote to remove Davis from office. Three-quarters of the electorate is unhappy with his job performance, an approval rating that has been stagnant for months.

Schwarzenegger, a Republican making his first run for elective office, captures 40% of the vote in the poll. His closest pursuer, Democratic Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, gets 25%. A poll one week ago by the Public Policy Institute of California had the preferences reversed — Bustamante with 28%, Schwarzenegger 26%. That indicates that Schwarzenegger has gained support after last week's nationally televised debate in Sacramento.

The poll confirms two troublesome trends for Davis: 98% of probable voters have made up their minds, and 91% of them say they're certain or extremely likely to vote. Those numbers predict a high turnout on Oct. 7 and indicate that there are few voters left for Davis to sway. Earlier California polls had shown the percentage of voters favoring recall as low as 53%.

State Sen. Tom McClintock, a conservative Republican who has been under pressure to quit the race and allow the GOP to unite behind Schwarzenegger in this overwhelmingly Democratic state, drew 18% in the poll, up slightly from previous surveys.

McClintock has rebuffed calls to withdraw, but the poll suggests that Schwarzenegger may not need his votes to become the first entertainer to lead California since Ronald Reagan in 1966.

I wonder what the McClintock fanatics are thinking now? This may well turn out to be for the best; if Schwarzenegger does end up winning the governor's office, he won't owe the hard right a single thing. That's what one gets for worshipping at the altar of ideological purity.

BBC - Iran Sticks By Nuclear Programme

Then we'll just have to make them give it up by force, won't we?

Friday, September 26, 2003

A Draft Sequence of the Dog Genome - Or Maybe Not

The New York Times is a great source of general news, but when it comes to science reporting, I usually find its' coverage rather lacking. In consequence, on hearing about the announcement of a draft sequence of the dog genome, I thought it best to turn elsewhere.

There are two things I feel a need to point out about this announcement. The first is that what is being announced is really only 1.5x shotgun coverage of the canine genome, which is really very little. By way of comparison, the fugu genome has been covered to a depth of 5.7x, the mouse genome achieved 7x coverage in 2002, and the finished version of the human genome achieved 8-10x coverage for each chromosome.

The minimum level of shotgun coverage usually required to call a sequence "draft quality" has been at least 3x; given that not even this much has been achieved, why the rush by The Institute for Genomic Research to publish? By their own admission, the assembled sequence so far consists of a massive 2 million fragments covering barely 80% of the canine genome, and it's safe to bet that a substantial proportion of that will be contaminated by bacterial sequences arising from the BACs* used in sequencing. Let's just say that this looks more like another Venter-inspired publicity stunt** than a truly headline-worthy milestone. I expect that once again, the really newsworthy developments will come from a non-profit organization - this time, from the Whitehead Institute, which has already completed a draft sequence of the chimpanzee genome with 4x coverage.

*Bacterial Artificial Chromosomes.
**Something similar occurred with the supposed "race" between Venter and the Human Genome Consortium to create a draft of the Human Genome; it transpired that, far from utilizing some miraculous shortcut unavailable to plodding public researchers, Venter's team was only able to assemble it's shotgun-produced sequences by leaning heavily on the detailed maps so slowly and carefully laid out by the HGC.

There is Something Rotten in the Heart of Brussels

Are these unaccountable paper-pushers the sorts anyone should be eager to cede autonomy to?

EU: Commission Seeks To Fend Off Laxity Charges In Corruption Case

Prague, 25 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- European Commission President Romano Prodi must be feeling that history repeats itself with unusual speed, as he faces a barrage of questions today from European parliamentarians on alleged corruption at an important European Union agency.

Prodi and his commission took office in 2000 on a pledge of zero tolerance for corruption. That followed the resignation of the previous commission under Jacques Santer, which was beset by allegations of cronyism and mismanagement.

It was the European Parliament that forced Santer and his team to go, and in doing so, the democratic arm of the EU for the first time asserted its power to dismiss the commission. Prodi must be aware of the ominous parallel as he takes questions from parliamentarians today.

Brussels-based political analyst Ben Crum of the Centre for European Policy Studies told RFE/RL that parliamentarians must decide how hard they are going to pursue Prodi. "The question is very much to what extent the [members of the European Parliament] want to push this issue, and whether they in the end want to take the strategic choice of showing their muscle, and showing how important parliament is, by really challenging Prodi," he said. Crum said that, given the heavy fallout that a hard-line approach could bring, the deputies may decide to tread more softly.

The problem relates to the Luxembourg-based Eurostat statistical agency, which is the subject of allegations that millions of euros have gone missing as a result of double accounting, fictitious contracts, and slush funds. The allegations are contained in a report by the EU's antifraud body OLAF, which says the irregularities occurred in the course of Eurostat contracts with outside consulting firms.

Prodi formally presents the OLAF report at today's meeting with parliamentary faction leaders, along with other documentation on the allegations. Internal EU auditors say the questionable practices were set up at Eurostat before 1999. This would tie them to the discredited Santer commission, before the Prodi era.

But the question is whether the alleged abuses continued into Prodi's rule, and if so, why they went apparently unnoticed in a commission dedicated to cleaning up corruption.

Here's the part I really like:

Prodi is expected to resist demands for resignations among his commission team, particularly that of Economic Affairs Commissioner Pedro Solbes of Spain, who has responsibility for Eurostat. Solbes annoyed parliamentarians in July when he told them he could not be held responsible for the fact that he had not been informed of any previous malpractice at Eurostat.

Crum noted also that the European Commission has been kept weak on purpose by EU member governments, and that that fact affects its efficiency. "One of the problems that the College [of Commissioners] has is that it lacks authority. All member governments have always said that the commission and the college is not the 'government for Europe,' and the member states have been really keen to downplay the authority the commission has because they don't want it to infringe too much on their own powers," Crum said.

Crum said this limits the ability of the commission to impose itself on an administration and bureaucracy that has been in existence much longer than the commission itself.

There are two things worth noting here, the first being the shameful reluctance of EU bureaucrats to accept blame, or even to allow their colleagues to take the blame, for any wrongdoing that is discovered during their watch. It would be bad enough if Prodi were trying to simply pass the buck to an underling or a predecessor, but here he is, insisting that even Pedro Solbes should be let off the hook! The second thing that stands out is the manner in which Eurocrats never pass up an opportunity to plead for yet more powers, even when the issue at hand is the abuse of the powers they already have at their disposal. Always the solution to every difficulty is the same - "we lack sufficient authority!" One would be tempted to admire them for the insolence with which they reach out for ever greater authority, were one not enraged by the contempt for the listener's intellect betrayed by such transparently self-serving requests.

For an informed take on the accountability problems faced by the European Commission, this EU Observer article isn't half bad:

EUOBSERVER / DEBATE - Eurostat is not an exception. Eurostat is an example; indeed a very small example of what is going on for many years inside the European Commission, especially in all 'spending DGs', with large amounts of money to spread around.

Insiders know it. 'Wisemen' (such as the 'Wisemen Committee" set up after Santer's Commission resignation) know it. People closely working with the Commission know it. Brussels-based journalists know it. Citizens in Europe feel it.

The situation essentially has nothing to do with the Commissioners, nor with the idea of a vastly corrupted EU bureaucracy (most EU civil servants are honest).

But it has everything to do with the lack of only two controls - political control and judicial - which can prevent an administration, and more precisely its top hierarchy, of becoming, either entirely or partially, a bureaucracy with all its hanging processes of cronyism, corruption and privileges.

No political control and no judicial control naturally lead to illegality.

Whether we like it or not, it is a fact that the European Commission is lacking both of them:

-- Judicially, things are extremely simple. Since 1965, which saw the adoption of a strange annex inside an EU treaty - chapter V of the Protocol annexed to the EC Treaty - EU civil servants have been immune from judicial prosecution for anything that occurs within their activities, even after they retire (Yes, you did read that correctly: immunity, until they die).

Only kings of the ancient times enjoyed such protection. But at least they could be removed … because they were politically responsible (at least via a revolution).

Lifelong immunity from prosecution for civil servants - now how's that for accountability? The more one learns about the internal workings of the European Union, the less sense one is able to make of Tony Blair's desire to plunge the British populace ever deeper into the "heart" of Europe, even if he has to do so against their will. Is he really so contemptuous of the average Briton's powers of reason that he thinks his electorate incapable of making the right decisions, or is he simply so preoccupied with securing his place in history that he is willing to sell out a nation of 60 million individuals to do so?

Thursday, September 25, 2003

The Economist - State Pensions in Europe

In light of my recent comments on the need for pension reform in Europe, I find the publication of the following article quite timely:

Economist.com | State pensions in Europe

Work longer, have more babies

Sep 25th 2003
From The Economist print edition

Europe's pensions crisis won't go away. Governments need to do more, and voters need to accept changes

EUROPE is currently witnessing the slow-motion explosion of the most predictable economic and social time-bomb in its history. As life expectancy began to increase quickly in the second half of the 20th century and fertility began to decline in the 1970s, the foundations of Europe's generous state-pension systems began slowly to crumble. These are pay-as-you-go schemes that force today's workers to finance yesterday's workers' pensions, based on the assumption that workers hugely outnumber retirees. But this has not been true for at least two decades. The current worker-pensioner ratio in Europe has fallen to about three workers for each pensioner, and it looks set to fall to a mere three workers for every two pensioners within 30 years. Most European governments have responded to this looming crisis only with the kind of timid tinkering that does little more than shift the problem to their successors (see article).

This is precisely what the Italian government is about to do. Silvio Berlusconi's pension reform, unveiled this week, will come into effect only in 2008 when the current prime minister is unlikely still to be occupying the Palazzo Chigi in Rome. Instead of speeding up an earlier reform, Mr Berlusconi is merely fiddling with so-called “seniority” pensions that allow workers to retire at 57 if they have been in work for 35 years. Rather than abolishing these next year, as expected, he will continue them until 2008, and offer workers a fat bonus if they carry on working despite being eligible for what is now widely viewed as an over-generous perk.

Mr Berlusconi's loss of courage is typical of similar half-hearted efforts elsewhere. Germany is currently discussing an increase by monthly increments of the retirement age from 65 to 67 between 2011 and 2035, but even this minimal change is proving too much for the left wing of the ruling Social Democratic Party. France passed a law this year that will oblige its public-sector employees to work as long as those employed in the private sector in order to qualify for a full state pension, a welcome reform that should nevertheless have happened years ago. Austria's government dared to push through a rather more ambitious reform this year, but tiny Austria's spending on pensions is also of Italian proportions.

There is little mystery about why governments have been so pusillanimous. Changes to public pension schemes are extremely unpopular with workers and voters. In France and Italy, trade unions have often brought their countries to a standstill at the slightest hint of any change to pensions. Mr Berlusconi's attempts at pension reform played a big part in the downfall of his previous government in 1994.

And yet sooner rather than later, European governments, as well as the voters whom they are supposed to serve, will have to face the unpalatable truth that their current public pension schemes are not sustainable. Addressing that crisis will be painful for everyone, and no single remedy will be enough, but there are measures which both voters and governments should pursue—with some urgency.

First, governments will have to act much more boldly to reduce the scope of the core pay-as-you-go public pension system. Second, employees, public or private, should be encouraged instead to channel their savings into private retirement accounts, either administered by employers or (even better) run directly by fund-management firms, thus taking responsibility for their own retirements. If encouragement does not work, such private savings may have to be made compulsory. Third, the state retirement age should be scrapped, because a fixed pension age makes little sense either for privately-funded pension schemes, which should be encouraged, or for public schemes. Alternatively, or as well, many European countries will have to do something to address the effects of their declining birth rates in order to redress the imbalance between workers and pensioners.

I've emphasized the bit on abolition of a fixed retirement age because it is precisely what I advocated on here a few days ago. I don't see that there's any way to solve this issue without adopting such a remedy, as the scale of population growth required to sustain an adequately high dependency ratio - whether the source be immigration or a new baby boom - would simply be too great to be acceptable; in any case, it would only stave off the inevitable for a while, as all population growth has to slow down at some point, lest we end up all squashed together like sardines. The fiction that it is possible to work for a set number of years, retire, and then enjoy another 20 to 30 years of well-remunerated idleness, is one that will die a hard death, but die it must.

Krista Kafer on School Choice & D.C. on National Review Online

Opportunity For Me, Not For Thee - or, "Congress, Vouchers and Hypocrisy."

This mostly says what I've been saying for quite a while now: congressional hypocrisy on school choice is so brazen that one has to wonder how these creatures manage to live with themselves.

How Bizarre

Ananova - Ban on Russian ads depicting euro having sex with dollar

I see that the Victorian spirit lives on in Russia. What's next, a prohibition on "naked" table legs? One would think the Russian authorities would have more substantive matters to concern themselves with than with tame innuendo like this.

Natanz Delenda Est

U.N. Finds More Weapons-Grade Uranium in Iran - Could anything be less surprising? War is a terrible thing, and not to be advocated on a whim, but all of the wishful thinking in the world isn't going to alter the reality that Iran will only be disarmed by force of arms, nor that it must be.

GOP Pressures McClintock to Yield to Schwarzenegger

This McClintock guy is being unbelievably dumb. What is he thinking, that he has a chance in hell of winning the election? If not, why is he still in the race, and who are the fools who insist on backing him to the bitter end?

Sure, on paper, McClintock seems the more consistent conservative, but politics is, as Bismarck once said, about the art of the possible, and the sort of hard-right agenda McClintock espouses simply isn't acceptable in California. A moderate Republican like Schwarzenegger, with all his failings - not least of which is his refusal to support school vouchers - is about as much as the GOP can realistically hope for in the state at this juncture, and if he were elected, there would at least be the possibility of pushing him to adopt more of the conservative agenda than he has done at present; but if McClintock stays in this race, at the least he'll rob Schwarzenegger of the credibility bestowed by a clearcut margin of victory, and at the worst he'll ensure that either Gray Davis stays in Sacramento, or Cruz Bustamante becomes the next governor of California.

I really don't understand the California GOP - never has an organization seemed so fervently drawn to self-destruction. Perhaps the only political organization that comes close in its' ability to shoot itself in the foot is the British Conservative Party.

Tom Friedman on Cancún

Tom Friedman's latest editorial once again hits the mark:

Connect the Dots
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN

The U.S. war on terrorism suffered a huge blow last week — not in Baghdad or Kabul, but on the beaches of Cancún.

Cancún was the site of the latest world trade talks, which fell apart largely because the U.S., the E.U. and Japan refused to give up the lavish subsidies they bestow on their farmers, making the prices of their cotton and agriculture so cheap that developing countries can't compete. This is a disaster because exporting food and textiles is the only way for most developing countries to grow. The Economist quoted a World Bank study that said a Cancún agreement, reducing tariffs and agrisubsidies, could have raised global income by $500 billion a year by 2015 — over 60 percent of which would go to poor countries and pull 144 million people out of poverty.

Sure, poverty doesn't cause terrorism — no one is killing for a raise. But poverty is great for the terrorism business because poverty creates humiliation and stifled aspirations and forces many people to leave their traditional farms to join the alienated urban poor in the cities — all conditions that spawn terrorists.

I would bet any amount of money, though, that when it came to deciding the Bush team's position at Cancún, no thought was given to its impact on the war on terrorism. Wouldn't it have been wise for the U.S. to take the initiative at Cancún, and offer to reduce our farm subsidies and textile tariffs, so some of the poorest countries, like Pakistan and Egypt, could raise their standards of living and sense of dignity, and also become better customers for U.S. goods? Yes, but that would be bad politics. It would mean asking U.S. farmers to sacrifice the ridiculous subsidies they get from our federal government ($3 billion a year for 25,000 cotton farmers) that make it impossible for foreign farmers to sell here.

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

"If the sons of American janitors can go die in Iraq to keep us safe," says Robert Wright, author of "Nonzero," a book on global interdependence, "then American cotton farmers, whose average net worth is nearly $1 million, can give up their subsidies to keep us safe. Opening our markets to farm products and textiles would be critical to drawing many nations — including Muslim ones — more deeply into the interdependent web of global capitalism and ultimately democracy."

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

If only the Bush team connected the dots, it would see what a nutty war on terrorism it is fighting, explains Mr. Prestowitz. Here, he says, is the Bush war on terrorism: Preach free trade, but don't deliver on it, so Pakistani farmers become more impoverished. Then ask Congress to give a tax break for any American who wants to buy a gas-guzzling Humvee for business use and also ask Congress to resist any efforts to make Detroit increase gasoline mileage in new cars. All this means more U.S. oil imports from Saudi Arabia.

So then the Saudis have more dollars to give to their Wahhabi fundamentalist evangelists, who spend it by building religious schools in Pakistan. The Pakistani farmer we've put out of business with our farm subsidies then sends his sons to the Wahhabi school because it is tuition-free and offers a hot lunch. His sons grow up getting only a Koranic education, so they are totally unprepared for modernity, but they are taught one thing: that America is the source of all their troubles. One of the farmer's sons joins Al Qaeda and is killed in Afghanistan by U.S. Special Forces, and we think we're winning the war on terrorism.

Fat chance.

I know that many of the blogosphere's would-be cognoscenti like to make fun of Friedman, but I find it remarkable how often he manages to escape the pull of reflexive partisanship most other NYT columnists succumb to, in order to get to the heart of an issue. That Europe and Japan are by far the worst offenders in terms of free trade in agriculture does not in any way excuse the Bush administration's current trade policies, and if there is one criticism of Bush I fully endorse, it is that he has been unwilling to stick his neck out in the slightest on behalf of free trade - he talks a good game, but in the end he's all hat and no cattle.

Wednesday, September 24, 2003

Dartmouth Leads the Way (Yet Again), or the Coming of Age of VoIP

A New Kind of Revolution in the Dorms of Dartmouth

Perhaps because of its geographic remoteness, Dartmouth College in the small town of Hanover, N.H., has long been willing to try novel means of communication.
The college introduced e-mail messaging to campus in the 1980's, well ahead of most other higher educational institutions. And in 2001, it was one of the first colleges to install a campuswide wireless data network.
Now, the college is venturing into the world of "voice over Internet protocol," also known as VoIP, which essentially turns a computer into a telephone.
This week, as classes begin, the 1,000 students entering the class of 2007 will be given the option of downloading software, generically known as softphones, onto Windows-based computers.

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

Voice over Internet protocol is not new. But running so much voice over a wireless data network is.
"As far as I know, no one has done a wireless voice-over-I.P. network this large before," said David Kotz, a computer science professor at Dartmouth.
The network is being phased in across the entire campus with plans to reach 13,000 people, including faculty and staff.

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

The roll out of voice over Internet protocol is closely coupled with Dartmouth's recent decision to stop charging students, faculty and staff for long-distance phone calls. The college made that decision when administrators discovered that the billing function was costing more than the calls themselves.
"One wouldn't be possible without the other," Mr. Johnson said. "Imagine the complexities of trying to track down who made what call when on a large, mobile campus voice-over-I.P. network."

Disclaimer: I went to Dartmouth, so I can't make any pretence at objectivity, but it seems to me that where IT innovation is concerned, the school has long been ahead of certain other, more famous institutions the world at large has long regarded as being pace-setters of some sort. From the days when John Kemeny invented Basic (contrary to Microsoft Encarta's claims on behalf of Bill Gates), to the early 1990s, when computer ownership was mandatory for all incoming freshmen and "blitzing" (emailing) was a more common phenomenon than telephone usage, Dartmouth has been very much a computer-oriented place, and I'm glad to see that the old willingness to embrace the new with enthusiasm remains in place.

Going beyond the parochial musings of a proud alumnus for a second, I think what is most important in this story is the statement that "administrators discovered that the billing function was costing more than the calls themselves." This says something truly profound about the nature of the telecommunications business today. Telecoms operators throughout the world have been reluctant to acknowledge the fact that the days of metered traffic are numbered, but this really helps to put the inevitable shift firmly before the public eye. If cable companies and telecoms providers can offer flat rate broadband services, there is simply no good reason not to extend the paradigm to the offering of all-you-can-eat voice service - other than a desire to protect one's revenues.

Another Serendipitous Discovery

The nature of the relationship between Islam and terrorism, and, taking a broader view, between the Islamic tradition and Western humanism, has been much in the news since the events of September the 11th, 2001. In seeking to understand Islam, many a commentator has tried to draw on the historical development of the religion for insights into its' current state, and in asking where exactly it was that Islam supposedly took a wrong turn down the path of religious obscurantism, the finger has often been pointed in the direction of one individual in particular, namely to the teachings of the theologian Al-Ghazali (1058-1111). It therefore came as a surprise to me to discover that Al-Ghazali's actual thoughts weren't quite as simplistic and anti-rational as they'd been made out to be on so many occasions, as is evident from reading R.J. Kilcullen's Al Ghazali and Averroes. The following excerpt should give a feel for the subtlety of Ghazali's thought:

So [Al-Ghazali] turned to philosophy. He seems to have expected it to be defective. "I was convinced that a man cannot grasp what is defective in any of the Sciences unless he has so complete a grasp of the science in question that he equals its most learned exponents in the application of its fundamental principles, and even goes beyond and surpasses them, probing into some of the tangles and profundities which the very professors of the science have neglected. Then and only then is it possible that what he has to assert about its defects is true.... I realised that to refute a system before understanding it and becoming acquainted with its depths is to act blindly."

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

The second group, "the naturalists, see in nature enough of the wonders of God's creation and the inventions of his wisdom to compel them to acknowledge a wise Creator who is aware of the aims and purposes of things. However the naturalists deny immortality, deny resurrection, and deny the future life - heaven, hell, resurrection and judgment". The third group are the theists, who include "Socrates, his pupil Plato, and the latter's pupil Aristotle" (p.268). These theists also did not altogether escape unbelief and heresy. Their mathematical science (e.g. astronomy) is undeniably true, but it has two drawbacks. First, enthusiastic students of philosophy are apt to suppose that since the philosophers have done so well in mathematics, all their philosophy is just as certain. "The second drawback arises from the man who is loyal to Islam but ignorant. He thinks that religion must be defended by rejecting every science connected with the philosophers", and the philosophers then suppose that Islam must be based on ignorance. "A grievous crime indeed against religion has been committed by the man who imagines that Islam is defended by the denial of the mathematical sciences". Similarly religious people who reject the philosophers' science of logic give the impression that religion rests on the rejection of logic. The natural science or physics of the philosophers does not need to be rejected, "except with regard to particular points which I enumerate in my book, The Incoherence of the Philosophers".

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

Al-Ghazali goes on to survey the opinions of the philosophers on ethics and politics, and makes a few specific criticisms. He says that in ethics the philosophers have borrowed from religious people. "The philosophers have taken over this teaching and mingled it with their own disquisitions, furtively using this embellishment to sell their rubbishy wares more readily". This has two drawbacks. First, some people rejected the whole mixture. "This is like a man who hears a Christian assert, "There is no god but God, and Jesus is the Messenger of God". The man rejects this, saying, "This is a Christian conception", and does not pause to ask himself whether the Christian is an infidel in respect of this assertion or in respect of his denial of the prophethood of Muhammad (peace be upon him). If he is an infidel only in respect of his denial of Muhammad, then he need not be contradicted in other assertions, true in themselves and not connected with his unbelief". There is no God but God, and Jesus is a messenger of God. "It is customary with weaker intellects thus to take the men as criterion of the truth, and not the truth as criterion of the men .... If it is true, [the intelligent man] accepts it, whether the speaker is a truthful person or not". "If we adopt the attitude of abstaining from every truth that the mind of a heretic has apprehended before us, we should be obliged to abstain from much that is true" (p.273).

Given the time and place in which Al-Ghazali held the notions outlined above, he ought to be reckoned as having been an extraordinarily sharp thinker, rather than the reactionary opponent of rationalism that he has too often been made out to have been.

Kilcurren also has interesting things to say about the ideas of Ibn-Rushd (Averroes), particularly in relation to Al-Ghazali's notions. The whole article is well worth reading, both as an entreé into the world of medieval philosophy, and as a glimpse into a world of islamic intellectual sophistication that has long since vanished from view, with the ascendancy of today's mullahs and sheikhs with their fatwas and incitements to terrorism. It is simple-minded to believe, as many do, that Islam in all its' guises is something to be feared and hated, just as it is stupid to reject all of Christianity on the basis of the Inquisition or the Crusades, but one is justified in wondering if the intellectually curious and sophisticated Islam of Ibn-Rushd, Al-Ghazali, Harun-al-Rashid and Al-Mansur, will ever regain the ascendancy over the simple-minded creed of hate and ignorance that seems to hold pride of place in much of the world today.

Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Iraqi Council Muzzles Al-Jazeera

According to Britain's Times, the Iraqi Governing Council has just passed a resolution expelling the reporting staff of Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya:

Iraqi council bans al-Jazeera reports
From Richard Lloyd Parry in Baghdad
THE US-appointed government in Iraq has banned two of the Arab world’s most popular television channels, The Times learnt yesterday.

The move leaves Paul Bremer, the American civil administrator in Baghdad, facing an acute dilemma. He must now decide whether to enrage the Arab world by approving the resolution, or to veto it and risk a confrontation with his most senior Iraqi supporters.

The Times was told that the Iraqi Governing Council voted in private session to expel reporters from the al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya satellite stations for allegedly inciting violence in Iraq and supporting the anti-coalition insurgency.

The council passed the resolution by 14-2, with three abstentions. The resolution called for reporters on the two channels to be banned from Iraq for one month, pending a review of their broadcasts. “Inciting violence is what these channels proclaim,” said Mudhar Shawkat, a senior member of the Iraqi National Congress who voted for the ban. “They show men in masks carrying guns, and call them ‘the resistance’. They’re not the resistance, they’re thugs and criminals.” He said that sentiment had hardened after Saturday’s attempted assassination of a congress member, Aquila al-Hashimi.

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

A Bremer veto would fuel Iraqi suspicions that the IGC was a puppet body, as well as angering its members. But muzzling the stations, regarded by many as champions of Arab nationalism in an international broadcast media biased towards the US and Israel,would further alienate the Arab world.

I'm of two minds about this action. On the one hand, I'm extremely uncomfortable with the notion of censorship, even when the parties to be censored are those, like Al-Jazeera, that go out of their way to glamorize violence as "resistance." Once the precedent has been established, what is there to prevent the Governing Council from prohibiting news agencies that are merely critical of its' policies from operating freely? Surely a better approach would have been to institute legal proceedings against these two newschannels, rather than simply expelling their staff from the country.

On the other hand, armchair theorizing aside, the reality is that Iraq at present is a country without a steady constitutional arrangement or even an independent and respected judiciary, so for me to expect the Governing Council to go the legal route is admittedly a bit unrealistic. There is also the matter of Iraqi sovereignty to consider: as much as it may offend my sensibilities that a governing body should choose, in the manner of a Robert Mugabe, to expel news agencies whose take on events it finds unacceptable, to the degree that sovereignty means anything at all, it also means having the freedom to make poor choices. Bremer cannot insist that the Council is an independent body with real powers of its' own while intervening too visibly to protect its' members from their own mistakes.

In the end, I think Bremer would be wise to let the Council's decision pass, stinker though it may be, while making ostentatiously clear to the Iraqi populace that his preferred policy would have been very different. If the Iraqi population at large finds the decision objectionable, the blame will then accrue where it properly belongs. The one thing not worth paying too much attention to in this decision should be "the Arab world" outside of Iraq's borders - Bremer's constituency ought always to be the people who live within Iraq's borders rather than those outside of it.

Imre Lakatos and Naive Falsificationism

Having read and concurred with Karl Popper's arguments in his Logic of Scientific Discovery, and having since encountered many a statement on the web to the effect that Popper's claims had been invalidated by either Thomas Kuhn or the Duhem-Quine Thesis, I'd long been interested in finding a concise overview of Imre Lakatos' response to the criticisms of falsificationism as proposed by Popper. It was therefore with some pleasure that I came across this particular overview of Lakatos' refinement of Popper's ideas that happens to fit the bill so perfectly. Of course, this is still no substitute for reading Lakatos' own works in the original, but for the casually interested, I think the link above ought to do, at least for a start.

Why is all of this important, you might ask? Certainly, at first glance the whole business seems of no interest to all but those who are interested in rarefied issues of epistemology, but in truth there is a great deal more at stake in the debate over Popper's arguments than is apparent to the casual observer. Popper's main intention in the Logic of Scientific Discovery was to lay out clear demarcating lines between science and pseudoscience, and in laying out that boundary, Popper happened to place two very fashionable schools of thought on what many felt to be the "wrong" side of the border - namely Freudianism and, most importantly, Marxism.

It was Popper's casting of Marxism out from under the veil of scientific respectability with which it had cloaked itself since the 19th century, to take its' place alongside other disreputable subjects like astrology and phrenology, that was the real motivating power behind many of the attacks launched on his work by other intellectuals, the idea being, if not to restore Marxism to its' former pretentions to scientific status, to at least blur the dividing line between science and non-science to the maximum possible extent, by discrediting Popper's programme as hopelessly idealized and/or confused. To say this much does not, however, suffice to refute the criticisms of Popper's claims, for an argument can be logically impeccable even when advanced by those whose motives one distrusts or disdains; no, criticisms must be evaluated on their own merits, rather than on the personal qualities of those who advance them, which is why I think it important to give the closest possible reading not just to Popper's actual arguments, but also to those of critics like Kuhn and Quine, as well as to refinements of Popper's original proposals like that put forward by Lakatos.

Saturday, September 20, 2003

The Martyrdom of Paul Krugman

This Guardian profile cum interview of Paul Krugman really is something, what with it's hagiographical tendencies, and the paranoia behind Krugman's worldview that it reveals:

The letters that Paul Krugman receives these days have to be picked up with tongs, and his employer pays someone to delete the death threats from his email inbox. This isn't something that can be said of most academics, and emphatically not of economic theorists, but Krugman isn't a typical don. Intercepting him in London on his way back home to New Jersey after a holiday in France, I half expect to find a couple of burly minders keeping a close eye on him, although they would probably have to be minders with a sound grasp of Keynesian macroeconomics. "I can't say I never get rattled," the gnomish, bearded 50-year-old Princeton University professor says a little hesitantly, looking every inch the ivory-tower thinker he might once have expected to be. "When it gets personal, I do get rattled."

Aww, poor baby! But on a serious note, there are a few things that need pointing out here. The first is that given Krugman's high profile and the sheer partisanship of his writing, he's bound to get his share of threatening letters from the sorts of political extremists that plague both the left and the right. The second is that Krugman, who loves to call others "liars", is either lying when he says his mail has to be picked up with tongs, or someone on the Guardian's journalistic staff has being doing a bit of creative embellishment: how does the mail get delivered in the first place, if it's as dangerous to deal with as is made out here?

Accustomed to the vigorous ivy league tradition of calling a stupid argument a stupid argument (and isolated, at home in New Jersey, from the Washington dinner-party circuit frequented by so many other political columnists) he has become pretty much the only voice in the mainstream US media to openly and repeatedly accuse George Bush of lying to the American people: first to sell a calamitous tax cut, and then to sell a war.

Again, not only is this not entirely true, as a cursory search on Google ought to establish - 109,000 results at last count, while adding Krugman's name to the search terms returns only 3,000 hits - but it is also revealing, not of a flaw in the "mainstream US media" as both the Guardian and Krugman might wish to believe, but of the paranoia, self-righteousness and sheer abrasiveness evident in Krugman's output as a New York Times columnist.

Amongst the first things one learns, or ought to learn, as a debater - as opposed to a propagandist - is not to call one's opponents "liars" at the drop of a hat, if one has any desire to retain the slightest bit of credibility with those whose views differ at all from one's own. This sort of elementary tact seems entirely alien to Krugman and his admirers, which makes it difficult for the uncommitted to buy what the rest of what they have to say.

"The first three pages of Kissinger's book sent chills down my spine," Krugman writes of A World Restored, the 1957 tome by the man who would later become the unacceptable face of cynical realpolitik. Kissinger, using Napoleon as a case study - but also, Krugman believes, implicitly addressing the rise of fascism in the 1930s - describes what happens when a stable political system is confronted with a "revolutionary power": a radical group that rejects the legitimacy of the system itself.

This, Krugman believes, is precisely the situation in the US today (though he is at pains to point out that he isn't comparing Bush to Hitler in moral terms). The "revolutionary power", in Kissinger's theory, rejects fundamental elements of the system it seeks to control, arguing that they are wrong in principle. For the Bush administration, according to Krugman, that includes social security; the idea of pursuing foreign policy through international institutions; and perhaps even the basic notion that political legitimacy comes from democratic elections - as opposed to, say, from God.


But worse still, Kissinger continued, nobody can quite bring themselves to believe that the revolutionary power really means to do what it claims. "Lulled by a period of stability which had seemed permanent," he wrote, "they find it nearly impossible to take at face value the assertion of the revolutionary power that it means to smash the existing framework." Exactly, says Krugman, who recalls the response to his column about Tom DeLay, the anti-evolutionist Republican leader of the House of Representatives, who claimed, bafflingly, that "nothing is more important in the face of a war than cutting taxes".

"My liberal friends said, 'I'm not interested in what some crazy guy in Congress has to say'," Krugman recalls. "But this is not some crazy guy! This guy runs Congress! There's this fundamental unwillingness to acknowledge the radicalism of the threat we're facing." But those who point out what is happening, Kissinger had already noted long ago, "are considered alarmists; those who counsel adaptation to circumstance are considered balanced and sane." ("Those who take the hard-line rightists now in power at their word are usually accused of being 'shrill', of going over the top," Krugman writes, and he has become well used to such accusations.)

Here we see Krugman's paranoia in full bloom. The Bush administration as a "revolutionary power?" Since when has it been "revolutionary" to govern at home like a left-wing Democratic president, passing pork-laden education and farm bills, caving in to protectionists' demands, and pushing for yet another unfunded entitlement for seniors, as Bush has actually done? One would think left-wingers would be cheering for a guy who has done so much to frustrate the hopes of so many of his core supporters by his free-spending policies, but no, Krugman only sees a "revolutionary."

It gets worse when we actually take a close look at what Krugman considers a "revolutionary agenda" - an alleged rejection of a social security system that is fundamentally unsustainable and badly in need of reform, a refusal to automatically put international institutions ahead of America's foreign policy goals, and finally, a supposed belief in the "divine right of kings" (or should that be "of presidents?") and a disdain for the democratic will of the people for which one can find absolutely no evidence whatsoever in objective reality. If two of the items on Krugman's list of three radical notions are so mundane - and one of the two, Social Security reform, is no more than a wish at this point - and the third is so obviously the product of a febrile imagination, why the surprise that even his own liberal friends find him "shrill" and "over the top?" Oh well, at least we can take comfort in the fact that "he isn't comparing Bush to Hitler in moral terms." One could make a nifty slogan out of that - "Bush: Not Quite as Bad as Hitler, in Moral Terms, Anyway"!

Krugman can expect many more accusations of shrillness now that The Great Unravelling is on the bookshelves in the US. Already, he says, Alan Greenspan, the chairman of the federal reserve, is refusing to talk to him - "because I accused him of being essentially an apologist for Bush". And there will be plenty of invective, presumably, from the conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan, who hauled Krugman over the coals for accepting a $50,000 (£30,000) adviser's fee from Enron. (Krugman ended the arrangement before beginning his New York Times column, and told his readers about it.

"I was a hot property, very much in demand as a speaker to business audiences: I was routinely offered as much as $50,000 to speak to investment banks and consulting firms," he wrote later, by way of justification - demonstrating the knack for blowing his own trumpet that even politically sympathetic colleagues find grating. They say he has had a chip on his shoulder since failing to get a job in the Clinton administration.)

Again, here is a guy who manages to make an enemy of the mild-mannered Alan Greenspan by calling him "an apologist for Bush", and whose ego is so inflated that even the Guardian is unable to pass over the criticisms made by fellow Democratic-leaning economists, and he finds it the slightest bit surprising that so many people should find him so loathsome?

Even when one agrees with Krugman's assessment of the Bush administration's economic policies, the impression one has of the man remains an unfavorable one: of a shrill (yes, Virginia, shrill), paranoid, rude, pushy, arrogant S.O.B whose take on those who don't subscribe to his views is that they are either hopeless fools to be dismissed with a wave of the hand, or depraved wretches who have sold out their principles for the sake of political patronage. Nowhere in Krugman's NYT writing does one get the feeling that what is on view is merely an honest-to-goodness difference in economic philosophies, one rooted in idealistic principles rather than brazen self-seeking, and therefore worthy of hashing out through level-headed argument. For a writer who is held so much in favor by those who disdain Bush's "simplistic" view of the world, Paul Krugman has an unpleasantly Manichaean approach to politics.

Berlusconi Moves on Pension Reform

Italy plans to raise age in pensions reform

I'd say it's about time too, but will this really be enough to stave off disaster in the long run? Given the ever increasing longevity of Western populations, I don't see how one can avoid moving to a system in which the age of retirement is directly indexed to life expectancy - people don't save aggressively enough in their youth, and even when they do save, they fail to allocate enough of their saving into the riskier asset classes, so they end up with retirement nest-eggs that are smaller than they might have expected, while Pay-As-You-Go systems like America's Social Security, and most of Continental Europe's, are nothing more than glorified pyramid schemes.

The fact is that when Bismarck initiated the first pensions scheme way back in the 19th century, it was never anticipated that most people would be living for decades after they'd become eligible to receive the benefits on offer, which is why nobody ever thought to explicitly link these schemes to actuarial data from the start.

Thursday, September 18, 2003

The Economist - Iran's nuclear diplomacy

The Economist has a surprisingly upbeat assessment of US-European unity over the issue of getting Iran to come clean about its' nuclear ambitions, but what if the Iranians simply decide to walk away from the promise of better diplomatic relations and financial cooperation being held out by the EU? Would this new-found unanimity hold under such circumstances, or would the opportunity to obtain short-term benefits simply prove too tempting for certain national leaders?

Jeffrey Zeldman on the Eolas-Microsoft Patent Case

Jeffrey Zeldman asks "Does Microsoft want to lose the plug-in patent case?"

In today’s New York Times, Steve Lohr confirms what was in Paul Festa’s CNET article on 11 September and in our assessment the following day. In that 12 September Report, we chose not to discuss a dark theory: namely, that Microsoft might willingly lose the case because doing so would harm its competitors worse than it hurt Redmond.

We dismissed that idea, not because Microsoft has a history of fair play, but because the company is not ready to capitalize on the annihalation by patent litigation of Real Networks, Macromedia’s Flash, Sun’s Java, and other competitive products and companies. It is not positioned to survive such a holocaust because its next generation product – one that could fare quite nicely in a world without plug-ins – is not on the market yet and will not be available for years.

Nevertheless, the “losing to win it all” theory has been coming to light in mainstream publications that are finally beginning to cover the case.

Zeldman's conclusion - that while such a scheme wouldn't be beyond the pale for Microsoft, it seems unlikely, if only because Longhorn won't be ready to take advantage of it anytime soon - is more charitable than anything I'd grant the men of Redmond. If there's one thing to be taken to heart by those who have watched Microsoft over the years, it is that however diabolically clever you think Bill Gates may be, he is always even more cunning than you suspected.

Michael Ledeen Gets It Too

I don't share Michael Ledeen's vision of giving aid and succor to the internal Iranian resistance (what little there is of it) as means of bringing about the downfall of the theocracy that is currently ruling that country, but this National Review article of his is actually to the point: as Ledeen points out, Iran's entire strategy right now is to play for time by drawing things out with the United Nations, even as it feverishly works on putting together the finishing touches on its' nuclear weapons program.

If there was ever a clearer case in which unilateral military aggression was called for, it would have to be with Iran and its' nuclear ambitions. Nuclear weapons in the hands of theocrats should scare the living daylights out of anyone, especially the Europeans who are within range of the latest generation of Iran's Shahab missiles. Alarm bells should be ringing in London, Berlin and Paris about Iran's intentions, and there is some (limited) evidence that these governments are beginning to pay some attention to the issue, but more jaw-jawing isn't enough. Frankly, I find it ridiculous that America, which is not even directly threatened by Iran's weapons as yet, should be taking the threat more seriously than the European powers that are. What are the leaders of these countries thinking? Do they imagine that a nuclear-armed Iran will have any compunctions about threatening Europe? To the theocrats who run that country, one Western infidel is as good as another, and Paris will serve just as well as Washington D.C. as a nuclear hostage.

Ledeen says that the Bush administration has no intention of attacking Iran, and, unfortunately, I believe him. Given the current difficulties in Iraq, the gigantic budget deficit I have already mentioned, and presidential elections coming up in just over a year, few prospects must seem less appetizing than taking on yet another war in the Middle East. And yet, something must be done, and who better to do it than the Europeans whose lives are most endangered by the Iranian nuclear program? If a joint European defense capability really means anything, this is a good opportunity to put it to the test. Europe has been a security free-rider on America for far too long, and it isn't as if it lacks either the men or the money to deal forcefully with the Iranian threat. Nevertheless, I suspect that France will not be able to resist the temptation to seize yet another opportunity to thumb its' nose at the hated Americans, rather than condescend to the very same sort of "simplistic" unilateral aggression that has ensured that no one in Europe will be living in fear of being incinerated by an Iraqi thermonuclear warhead.

Tom Friedman Gets It

Our War With France

It's time we Americans came to terms with something: France is not just our annoying ally. It is not just our jealous rival. France is becoming our enemy.

If you add up how France behaved in the run-up to the Iraq war (making it impossible for the Security Council to put a real ultimatum to Saddam Hussein that might have avoided a war), and if you look at how France behaved during the war (when its foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, refused to answer the question of whether he wanted Saddam or America to win in Iraq), and if you watch how France is behaving today (demanding some kind of loopy symbolic transfer of Iraqi sovereignty to some kind of hastily thrown together Iraqi provisional government, with the rest of Iraq's transition to democracy to be overseen more by a divided U.N. than by America), then there is only one conclusion one can draw: France wants America to fail in Iraq.

Those in the Democratic Party who have been pushing for more UN involvement and the need to work with "allies" are either being incredibly naïve, or are themselves hoping that some sort of quagmire ensues. There is little to be gained by going the UN route and opening things up for interference from self-seeking parties like the various despotisms bordering Iraq, and nothing at all to be obtained by providing a covertly belligerent power like France with the opportunity for sabotage it has for so long been seeking.

I consider it a failure of leadership on Bush's part that he should have let postwar reconstruction drift so badly and for so long that he opened himself up to the sort of pressure that eventually brought him to look for UN assistance. It ought to have been obvious from the start that "regime-change" in Iraq would neither be cheap nor quick, and fools like Wolfowitz who went on about how Iraq could pay for its' reconstruction out of its' own oil revenues have no place running American foreign policy. If Iraq was important enough to defy the will of the international community to attack, its' reconstruction ought to have been important enough to warrant budgeting seriously for, but this the Bush administration egregiously failed to do, as was evident to any sensible person at the time.

I have no faith in the panaceas being peddled by any of the "multilateralists" in the Democratic Party, but they are surely correct in pointing out the grave lapses in both planning and execution that have been the hallmark of America's post-war presence in Iraq.

IMF Sees Faster U.S. Growth

More good news on the economic front. The IMF revises its' U.S. growth estimates upwards, to 2.6 percent this year, and 3.9 percent in 2004. That's still not quite enough to meet Brad DeLong's estimate of 4 percent growth to reduce the unemployment rate, but I have a feeling that the growth numbers will be revised upwards yet again before this year is through.

The big point of worry is the same one that DeLong has been worrying about - the sheer scale of the American current account deficit, and the danger of a sudden sharp decline in the value of the dollar it risks precipitating. Bush has got to do something about the rate of government spending; the situation has simply gotten out of control, with the government deficit forecast at $525 billion (4.7 percent of GDP) for next year - far worse than the ~ 3.5 to 3.9 percent budget gaps with which the Europeans are struggling.

Wednesday, September 17, 2003

A Journey Into the Land That Time Forgot

Britain's Times has an informative article by Oliver August about his eight-day visit to North Korea

DURING lunch at one of the few hotels reserved for foreigners in North Korea’s capital, I jokingly complained to a friend that there was no complimentary shampoo in the rooms. A few hours later we found bottles placed neatly by the rooms’ showers.

These are the sort of tricks that one expects from the security apparatus of a totalitarian regime. You could see the wires connecting the microphone poorly concealed behind a wall panel in the hotel restaurant. Presumably they wanted us to know that they listened to everything we said.

North Korea is commonly described as the world’s last Stalinist country, a “hermit kingdom” closed to outsiders, a giant gulag of 20 million people. But even these labels do not do justice to the bizarre picture that emerges from a rare eight days of travelling inside it.

Surveillance of visitors is constant. Tour routes are tightly restricted to hide the severe lack of sustenance that is said to have killed hundreds of thousands of people in the past decade. But the intellectual starvation of an entire society is harder to disguise. Five decades of relentless brainwashing and oppression has visibly extinguished part of the inmates’ humanity.

Many North Koreans seem to have “unlearnt” basic instincts, such as curiosity. One morning I escaped my minders, using a pair of inline skates that I had taken with me. For an hour I zipped solo through the streets of Pyongyang. Not one ordinary North Korean took note of me.

In any other remote country, people would have waved or frowned or at least stared if they saw a white man using such an unusual form of of transport. Instead, people averted their gaze.

Unauthorised contact with a foreigner is a crime. Merely taking an interest in my presence might get them reported by a neighbour during weekly “criticism sessions”, where citizens denounce each other in front of a committee of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party. For many this is the first step to a labour camp.

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

The streets are mostly ruled by a code of uniformity and people wear either Mao-style tunics introduced by Mr Kim’s father, the nation’s founder, or a pin on their lapels showing his face.

The arts are equally stunted and suffused with ideology. All literature and filmed entertainment carries an identical political message. One day my minders took me to a performance at the Children’s Palaces. Hundreds of under-ten-year-olds sang folk songs and danced in military formations. The screen behind them showed footage from tank exercises, naval combat scenes and missile launch sequences. This was considered light entertainment.

The many public monuments depict either the country’s founder and his son, or generic workers and soldiers. No citizen is allowed any prominence. On television, people are rarely shown except in groups, and applause is hardly ever directed at an individual.

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

The longer I stayed in this bleak country — leashed to my minders — the more frustrated I became. Most shameful was the feeding game that they played with foreigners. To counter the image of a starving country, we were always given more food than we could possibly eat: a meal had at least seven courses. If you came close to finishing, they would double the portions the next day.

But there were details betraying real scarcity. The feasts were elaborate, but toothpicks seemed to be rationed to one per person.

Despite everything, there was still the occasional person prepared to risk showing an interest in the outside world. One day, a man asked me if I had any spare books. “I want to know about foreign countries,” he said. I gave him The World of Suzie Wong, the novel about a prostitute in post-war Hong Kong; it was hardly appropriate, but nicely subversive.

He said that he had studied in China at the time of the Tiananmen Square student protest. He said of the spring of 1989: “It was very exciting. We were free then, for a short period.”

A few days later in Wonsan, a port city five hours by car from Pyongyang, I sat on the pier at sunset. During daylight I was to all intents and purposes invisible to the North Koreans around me. They avoided all eye contact; some crossed the road to avoid passing me.

But as darkness fell their reactions were transformed. Within minutes people started to act as they would elsewhere in the world. Some came close and stared. Others tried a few words of English. I also noticed couples furtively holding hands: committing the grave crime of showing public affection for someone other than their leaders.

Earlier, I had pitied the North Koreans for the absolute darkness that descended every night due to the lack of electricity. There were no street lamps and almost no indoor lights.

Now I realised that the dark was their salvation. Neighbours could no longer spy on them. It was in the dark that the human spirit survived for the day when North Korea will be free.

When Bush called North Korea "evil", many would-be sophisticates sneered at the "simplisme" betrayed by his statement; there was much jesting about "cowboys" and "evildoers", and there was no shortage of world-weary intellectuals to berate the Americans for their dangerously "Manichean" vision of the world. Stories like this one give the lie to the notion that Bush was being either "simplistic" or "Manichean" in his description of North Korea. This is a truly monstrous regime, ont that must be faced down rather propitiated, and it simply will not do to say "Yes, Kim Jung Il is terrible, but ..."

Don't Rush to Disaster (washingtonpost.com)

In this article, Fareed Zakaria makes the exact same point I'd made a few days ago: that a hasty handover in Iraq, as advocated by the French, would be a disaster.

It is strange that U.N. officials argue that we must quickly move, in Kofi Annan's phrase, from "the logic of occupation" to that of Iraqi sovereignty. The United Nations has blessed and assisted in the occupation of Bosnia, where it took seven years to transfer power to the locals. It boasts of "the logic of occupation" in Kosovo, which has gone smoothly for the past four years, with no prospect of ending anytime soon. It administered tiny East Timor for two years before handing over power. Does Kofi Annan really think that what took seven years in Bosnia can take one year in Iraq, with six times as many people?

It is touching to learn of the French faith in the Governing Council. When the council was set up, the French government (as well as the Germans) refused to endorse it, privately disparaging the group as American puppets. It took a month for the United States to get France to vote in the Security Council simply to welcome the formation of the Governing Council. France's newfound love for the council is simply an attempt to get the United States out as soon as possible.

Tuesday, September 16, 2003

U.S. No. 1 in School Spending, Not Scores

We're always hearing the Democrats and the teachers' unions complain about the meagreness of the resources they have to make do with in carrying out their duties, so this bit of news makes for particularly interesting reading:

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The United States spends more public and private money on education than other major countries, but its performance doesn't measure up in areas ranging from high-school graduation rates to test scores in math, reading and science, a new report shows.

``There are countries which don't get the bang for the bucks, and the U.S. is one of them,'' said Barry McGaw, education director for the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which produced the annual review of industrialized nations.

The United States spent $10,240 per student from elementary school through college in 2000, according to the report. The average was $6,361 among more than 25 nations.

Yet the United States finished in the middle of the pack in its 15-year-olds' performance on math, reading and science in 2000, and its high-school graduation rate was below the international average in 2001 -- figures highlighted by Education Secretary Rod Paige.

Now, what was that about needing more money again?

WTO Talks Collapse

The Economist has an insightful take on the story behind the collapse of the negotiations at Cancun. Though I usually find myself in agreement with Brad DeLong on matters of international trade, this time I find his take on the causes of failure rather politically jaundiced.

In 1996, ministers met in Singapore and talked about incorporating rules on foreign investment, competition policy, government purchases and "trade facilitation" (things like customs clearance) into the WTO. It was time, said some, to write the rules for globalisation. Poor countries, and some rich ones, demurred. While some of the proposed rules make sense on their own terms (who could be against swift customs clearance or transparency in government procurement?) it was not clear why the WTO, or any global organisation, should write and police those rules.

Poor countries in particular did not want to take on a whole new set of international obligations, which would be as costly to implement and monitor as the intellectual property rules they signed up to in the Uruguay round. Some poor countries, after all, do not even have a competition commission. Moreover, if they signed up to new obligations, then failed to fulfil them, they could be hit with trade sanctions.

Rules on foreign investment proved especially controversial in Cancún. Proponents of globalisation have long argued that inward investment not only brings new money into a poor country, it also brings new expertise and technology, which "spills over" to local firms and workers. Poor-country governments have devised many a strategy to encourage these spill-overs, by requiring foreign companies to undertake joint ventures with local firms, for example. They fear that rich countries want to take these rules on investment out of their hands. On Thursday, no fewer than 70 poor countries, led by Malaysia and India, declared that they would not countenance inclusion of the Singapore issues at Cancún. On Sunday afternoon, the European Union suggested that talks on trade facilitation and government procurement be launched now, and that discussions of investment and competition policy be held at future summits. But South Korea (backed by Japan) insisted they talk about all four Singapore issues; the African Union, meanwhile, refused to discuss any. At that point, Mr Derbez threw in the towel.

It is clear why poor countries do not want to hear about the Singapore issues. But why are some richer countries so keen to talk about them? The United States, which invests a great deal abroad, has some interest in protecting those investments with WTO rules. But the Americans are quite diffident about the rest of the Singapore agenda. They would not take kindly, for example, to having the antitrust decisions of their judges trumped by a world competition policy set at the WTO's headquarters in Geneva. The main proponents of the Singapore issues are the EU, already accustomed to supranational rules on competition and government procurement, and Japan. But even among the EU's members, opinion is divided, and few companies are throwing their weight behind the Singapore issues.

Some cynics suggest that the Singapore issues are just chaff thrown up by the EU and Japan to disguise their own intransigence over agriculture. Ever since the current round of trade talks was launched in 2001, Japan and the EU have been on the defensive. The Doha round's focus on agricultural liberalisation has forced them to defend some of the most illiberal but well-entrenched systems of agricultural protection in the world. Japan's import tariffs on rice go up to 1,000%. The EU spends more on annual subsidies for each of its cows than most sub-Saharan Africans earn in a year. Both insist on progress on the Singapore issues as a quid pro quo for long-overdue agricultural reforms that still seem politically beyond them. If poor countries refuse to yield ground, the EU and Japan can blame them for their inflexibility over the Singapore issues, rather than taking the blame for their own inflexibility over agriculture.

The Economist article should make clear enough that, contrary to DeLong's supposition, the collapse of the Cancun talks cannot be blamed on "the cretinous, malevolent, and incompetent servants (the Bob Zoellicks, the Karl Roves) of an unrepresentative minority government." As bad as Bush's record on trade has been, with the steel quota, the farm bill, and squabbles over Canadian lumber and Vietnamese catfish, the United States still comes out of this mess looking like an angel by comparison with the breathtaking cynicism evinced by the Europeans and the Japanese.

Luxembourg's Prime Minister Decries EU Deficit Pact "Fetishists"

This is really quite amusing:

STRESA, Italy, Sept 13 (Reuters) - Luxembourg's Jean-Claude Juncker backed France in a controversy over deficits as he met euro zone finance ministers on Saturday, and he decried what he called the strict "fetishists' view" of EU stability pact rules.

"What's essential is to ensure stability and economic growth and if we can do that on a solid basis in 2005 with a very clear system, that's the way to go," Juncker, who doubles up as prime minister and finance minister of his country, told reporters.

After France sparked a furore by saying it would not be able to respect the upper deficit limit of the EU stability pact until 2006, French Finance Minister Francis Mer said on Friday that Paris would aim to get back in line in 2005.

Several countries, above all the Netherlands and Austria, had led a charge against France, demanding that the Stability and Growth Pact be respected by all in the euro zone and not to make exceptions for countries like France.

The European Commission has also demanded that France do more to respect the rules and get its deficit back under the pact's upper limit for national deficits -- three percent of gross domestic product.

"Why demand it right now and shout from the rooftops that it must be done on October 28, 2004, if there's a guarantee it can be done in 2005?" he said.

"I don't like the fetishists' view on this issue," Juncker, a veteran of EU politics and the negotiations that led to the creation of the euro currency, said on the second day of talks with colleagues in the northern Italian lakeside resort town of Stresa.

I agree to some extent with Mr. Juncker's statement that the Stability Pact makes a fetish of balanced budgets, but I think his criticism are nonetheless off the mark. The issue isn't whether or not the pact's terms are being too strictly interpreted, but whether it and other EU rules are to be interpreted in the same manner for all member states, whether they are major powers like France and Germany, or smaller fry like Austria and the Netherlands. These smaller countries cannot be expected to sit idly by as the rules they themselves must abide by are suspended for the French. If the European Union is to be run as a Franco-German club, then what incentive is there for the rest of Europe to participate?

Sweden Rejects the Euro

What a surprise! And what I found even more surprising was the margin of victory - a huge 14.3%. I'd been expecting the pro-Euro camp to ride to victory on the back of the sympathy factor, what with all the press coverage that made Anne Lindh out to be the second coming of Mother Teresa, but it seems I underestimated the Swedes' ability to separate their feelings of grief from hard-headed calculations about the best choice for their country. In my defense, I can only say that the results of the 2000 election race between John Ashcroft and Mel Carnahan, in which Carnahan's death led to an election day surge for the dead candidate, and the taking of the Senatorial office by his wife, who was never even a participant in the electoral contest, was enough to make anyone doubt for the rationality of the average person.

None of the arguments made on behalf of joining the Euro made any sense, whether considered from an economic or a political angle. The claim that the Euro would bring big economic benefits was never plausible on its' face: the EU is very far from being an optimal currency area, and income flows on the scale that would be required to counterbalance any asymmetric shocks to Eurozone countries are simply politically unimaginable anytime in the near future. Labor mobility is extremely low, even within most European countries, while the linguistic barriers are such that the only direction in which labor could easily flow would be towards the UK and Ireland, because of the demands by employers in even the smallest countries that all employees speak the local language fluently. Can anyone reasonably imagine a day when the Danes, the Dutch or the Portuguese would agree to the adoption of German or (most likely) English as the official working language within their own borders?

But even leaving aside the language issue for the moment, there is still the fact that academic credentials are not automatically recognized or correctly evaluated outside of the countries they are issued, that legal and professional standards differ across all EU countries, that moving from one country to another often means losing all your pension contributions, and a host of other imperfections in the labor market that ensure Europe will not be looking like America, where moving from one coast to another is a routine matter, anytime soon.

For Sweden to have surrendered the Krona for the Euro would have meant the loss of the power to set its' own interest rates, in exchange for the dubious privilege of permitting the European Central Bank to set Europe-wide rates, in the calculations for which all of Sweden's 9 million inhabitants would have counted for less than the Paris metropolitan area (9.7 million) or the German region of Bavaria (12 million); to stretch the clichéd metaphor so beloved of EU politicians and bureaucrats, Sweden would have traded in a table all of its' own for the pleasure of being just one more pipsqueak voice at the Round Table where the Big Boys of France, Germany and Italy would get to call the shots - some deal!

Matters weren't helped by the flagrant disregard that France, that scourge of high-handed unilateralism and national self-interest, has displayed towards the strictures of the Growth and Stability Pact. France is not alone in being in breach of the pact's rules, with Germany once again playing the role of faithful sidekick in this little misadventure, but at least the Germans have had the decency to pay lip service to meeting its' terms, for fear of offending smaller countries like the Netherlands and Belgium that did their belt-tightening when it was needed. No, France, being France, does everything with typical Gallic insouciance and hauteur, with Prime Minister Raffarin supposedly proclaiming “my first duty is employment and not to solve accounting equations and do mathematical problems until some office or other in some country or other is satisfied." What style, what elegance of language! Just the sort of flagrant violating of rules by one of Europe's "bigs" to get smaller players like Sweden convinced that theirs will be a voice to be respected within the Eurozone! Bravo, mes amis!

It was only to be expected that the EU bigwigs would come out with a bit of finger-wagging at the naughty Swedes who had failed to take their medicine as they'd been chided to, and indeed, Romano Prodi did not disappoint, muttering about how Sweden "would lose influence," as if there were ever any "influence" to be gained or maintained by surrendering all control of monetary policy to the European Central Bank. But, if Europe's political class are at all sensible, they would do well to draw the necessary conclusions from this poll, for despite the backing of nearly all of Sweden's parties, ranging across the entirety of the political spectrum, as well as all of the major Swedish newspapers and the entirety of the business class, and despite the pro-Euro campaigners outspending their opponents by the heftiest of margins, they still failed to cajole the Swedish populace into going along with their plans. What more proof could be required that there is something wrong with both the pace at which unification and centralization are occurring, and the manner in which they are being carried out?

If this weren't a Scandinavian country we were talking about, the political class would already be making arrangements for yet another poll within a year or two, with the aim in view of repeating the exercise ad nauseum until an "acceptable" result is obtained. Such was the case with Ireland and the Nice Treaty, and I certainly wouldn't put that sort of cynical politicking beyond Tony Blair, who still refuses to accept that the proposed European Constitution is worth putting before the public in a referendum. Fortunately for the Swedes, their political class tends to be a tad bit more respectful of the wishes of their masters than those of Britain or Continental Europe, and Goran Persson has given his word that there won't be another referendum for the next 10 years. This will make the job of British Europhiles exponentially more difficult, as the main, bogus, argument they've been able to muster has been that Britain could not afford to stay out of the Eurozone for fear of being "left behind", or not having "a seat at the table." It won't be possible to trot out nonsense about the British economy being too small to remain outside the Euro if tiny Sweden and Denmark, not to speak of little Switzerland, manage to prosper outside of its' borders.

Sunday, September 14, 2003

George F. Will on the D.C. Voucher Program

A good article, and one that repeats many of the same arguments I've already made on this blog:

Vouching for Children

By George F. Will

Sunday, September 14, 2003; Page B07

Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio) no longer attends the annual picnic held here by District of Columbia supporters of school choice. During the picnic there are lottery drawings to award scholarships empowering a few children to escape from the nation's worst -- and, in per-pupil spending, third-most lavishly funded -- school system. Boehner stopped attending because he could not bear the desperate anxiety, and crushing disappointment, of parents whose hopes for their children hung on the lottery. "I'd stand there and cry the whole time," he says.

Bill Clinton, who could cry out of one eye, was dry-eyed about the plight of D.C.'s poor: He vetoed a school-choice bill for them in 1998. He felt the pain of the strong, the teachers' unions who were feeling menaced by the weak -- by poor parents trying to emancipate their children from the public education plantation.

Boehner, who understands the patience of politics, began championing school choice as a state legislator two decades ago. Last Tuesday the House passed a small ($10 million) experimental school choice voucher program for at least 1,300 of the District's 68,000 students. This bill, skillfully managed by Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) passed, 209-208, only because two Democratic members, presidential candidates Dick Gephardt and Dennis Kucinich, were in Baltimore at a debate sponsored by the Congressional Black Caucus, proclaiming their compassion for poor people.

"I have 11 brothers and sisters -- my father owned a bar," says Boehner, who is not suggesting effect and cause but rather that "growing up in a large family and around a bar was great training for what I do every day" -- an intriguing commentary on the House. Boehner understands the privations parents often must endure to give their children educational opportunities.

He knows D.C. parents are motivated by research showing that the longer a child attends D.C.'s schools, the worse are the child's chances in life. Also, the D.C. teachers union, a tentacle of the national unions fighting to prevent what they call the "flight" of parents to better schools, has been looted of millions of dollars, much of it allegedly spent by some union officials on personal purchases of luxury goods.

For years opponents of school choice for poor children have leapt from one sinking argument to another. All their arguments have now sunk:

Choice programs that empower parents to choose religious schools are unconstitutional? Seven consecutive Supreme Court decisions say otherwise.

Choice programs take money from public schools? The D.C. program takes not a penny -- the $10 million would be new money.

Choice programs skim the best students from the public system? Davis's bill gives priority to students in the District's 15 worst-performing schools.

Choice programs lack accountability? The academic progress of participants in the program will be measured against the progress of the students who sought but failed to get any of the 1,300 scholarships.

Given all this, why did the D.C. program barely pass? With states' budgets forcing painful cuts, it can be difficult to vote money for D.C. children. Even more important is the fact that teachers unions are especially effective at the state level, where they establish relationships with legislators -- and 233 current representatives and 42 senators are former state legislators.

In the Senate committee vote on D.C. school choice, two Democrats, West Virginia's Robert Byrd and California's Dianne Feinstein, supported the program. Mary Landrieu, the Louisiana Democrat who abstained, explained to some disappointed D.C. parents that the maximum grant under the proposed D.C. program -- $7,500 -- would not be enough to send a poor child to the $21,000-a-year private school her children attend.

Hypocrites like Mary Landrieu want to argue that because poor parents wouldn't be able to send their children to Georgetown Day (which her own precious cherubs attend) even if they were provided with these vouchers, they shouldn't have the option of sending them anywhere else at all; and yet liberals like to claim that the Republicans are the "heartless" party ...

Journalistic Bias on Display

Here's what a New York Times journalist has to say about the differences between America and France over the proper pace at which authority ought to be handed over:

U.S.-French Rift Reopened as Powell Arrives for Talks
By STEVEN R. WEISMAN

GENEVA, Saturday, Sept. 13 — Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, reopening the trans-Atlantic rift over Iraq — this time about expanding the authority of the United Nations there — said today that a French proposal to cut back the role of the American-led occupation was unacceptable.

Arriving in Geneva after midnight for intensive talks on Saturday about what role the United Nations should play, Mr. Powell also labeled as "totally unrealistic" a French suggestion that Iraq establish a provisional government in a month, write a constitution by the end of this year and hold elections next spring, all under United Nations auspices.

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

American officials say they are hopeful that another confrontation can be avoided, in part because this time Germany and Russia seem to be trying hard to bridge the differences between France and the United States. But they say they do not expect any breakthroughs this weekend.

A sign of the difficulty came in today's Le Monde, the leading French newspaper, in which the foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, wrote that it was "urgent to transfer sovereignty to the Iraqi people themselves." The transfer, he said, must be carried out under United Nations and not American auspices.

France has said several times that the United States must move beyond "the logic of occupation" if it is to win support from the international community for a multinational troop presence and, even more, for the billions of dollars that Washington seeks for Iraq's reconstruction.

Such talk is clearly exasperating to Mr. Powell and other American officials. Before leaving for Europe on this trip, Mr. Powell gave interviews to French, Russian and German media in which he all but ridiculed the idea that somehow the United States was wedded to being an occupier.

"Nobody wants to turn sovereignty back to the Iraqi people as fast as the United States does, President Bush does and I do," Mr. Powell told France 2, a television network. But he said that the American occupation under "can't suddenly just step aside and turn it over — to whom?"

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

American officials said that they remained hopeful that they could avoid a nasty dispute that would lead to a veto by France or any other of the permanent members of the Security Council. In addition, Mr. Powell said the United States could probably get at least nine countries on the Council to support its basic approach, enough to have the resolution approved if there is no veto.

"If there is anything that worried me, it would be a veto," Mr. Powell said.

"We need to get out of some of the rhetorical arguments we're having," he told French television. "One I hear is that the United States believes in the logic of occupation. Nonsense. Every European should know that the United States of America has always believed in the logic of liberation." (emphasis added)

Well, isn't that curious? France makes a clearly absurd proposal, but in Steven Weisman's eyes, it is Colin Powell who is "reopening the trans-Atlantic rift"! Why doesn't he pin the blame on the party that insists on talking about a "logic of occupation" (whatever that means, given the French love affair with nebulous but fine-sounding phrases)?

Let us inject a little logic into the discussion here, and ask ourselves why a nation that is incurring billions of dollars in costs each month its' soldiers remain in Iraq, should wish to endorse a "logic of occupation", especially in light of the gigantic budget deficit it needs to address, and an upcoming presidential election in which expenditures in Iraq are bound to be a big issue. Does any of that make the slightest bit of sense? And yet, by French logic, it must all be true. The New York Times' take on the issue indicates that its' editorial staff has no problem with this peculiar take on the whole business.

A Stiff-Necked People

From the Daily Telegraph we learn the following:

France accused as UN summit on Iraq stalls
By David Wastell, Diplomatic Correspondent
(Filed: 14/09/2003)

Foreign ministers of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council failed to overcome differences on a timetable for handing over power in Iraq yesterday as France came under fire for making "unrealistic" demands.

Colin Powell, the United States secretary of state, said he was "encouraged" by talks in Geneva aimed at agreeing the framework for a UN resolution to set up a multinational force in Iraq. Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General, said consensus was both "essential and achievable".

There was no sign, however, that France was backing down from its insistence that the coalition must hand over all powers to the interim Iraqi authority within a month - a deadline Britain and America regard as impossible.

Mr Powell sharply rebuffed French demands for power to be transferred to the interim Iraqi authority next month.

"Nobody wants to turn sovereignty back to the Iraqis as fast as the United States does, President Bush does and I do," he told French television before the meeting. But the handover deadline proposed by Dominique de Villepin, France's foreign minister, in a newspaper article last week was "totally unrealistic".

Mr Powell added: "It would be delightful if one could do that, but one can't do that. I cannot anticipate us agreeing to any language that would buy into what Minister de Villepin has been saying."

Diplomats said that Mr de Villepin did not explicitly repeat his call during the talks, but said the handover should be completed "by the autumn".

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

French demands for almost immediate restoration of Iraqi sovereignty were echoed yesterday by Adnan Pachachi, a member of the US-appointed governing council in Baghdad. He said he and his 24 colleagues wanted the fastest possible transfer of authority.

France also wants a new constitution for Iraq to be settled by next spring, and a commitment to May elections. During yesterday's meeting, Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, pointed out that London and Washington had already said they hoped to see a new constitution in place by next summer, with elections to follow soon after.

He said later: "What we've agreed that we all want to see is the transfer of power to the Iraqi people as quickly as possible, but we must do so in a way that ensures security and good government."

Why do the French always insist on being the skunk at the garden party? First it was the money-grubbing holdup of the lifting of UN sanctions on Libya, then we have this ridiculous set of demands. No one can claim that France is simply asking for a measure of authority commensurate with the responsibilities it is being asked to undertake here, as for one thing, France has yet to make any concrete offers of either men or money, and in light of its' present difficulties with meeting the terms of the Stability Pact, is probably in no condition to bring much to the table, even if it wants to - which it almost certainly does not.

No, this has nothing to do with "reason", and everything to do with being as much of a pain in the neck to the Americans as possible. How else can one interprete demands to hand over all power to the interim Iraqi authority within a month? France, of all countries, being a former colonial power, should realize the magnitude of the tasks that must be completed before such a step can be undertaken, and that to simply dump all responsibility in the interim authority's lap would be to guarantee chaos down the line.

The institutions of government take time to build, constitutions need careful deliberation, vetting and approval, election districts must be negotiated, voters registered - the list of things to do, and which the Iraqis are manifestly unqualified of doing, given their lack of any experience with constitutional government, is simply overwhelming. Having everything up and running within 3 years would be an astonishingly swift accomplishment; demanding that it all happen in the span of 9 months, as France is doing, is a sign of madness. One has to wonder what point there was in bringing this whole business to the UN to begin with, given the opportunity France's veto power in the Security Council gives it to engage in mischief. Neither it nor Germany are in a position to really offer anything in return for the outsized demands they are making, other than a mostly symbolic seal of approval.

Trouble in Guinea-Bissau

It looks like there's been a coup in Guinea-Bissau:

Soldiers Seize Power in Guinea - Bissau
By REUTERS

Filed at 6:33 a.m. ET

BISSAU (Reuters) - Soldiers seized power Sunday in the tiny coup-prone West African nation of Guinea-Bissau and pledged to restore constitutional order to the impoverished former Portuguese colony.

After a dawn putsch, troops carrying automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenade launchers patrolled the center of the capital Bissau on Sunday morning. No shooting was heard.

Army Chief of Staff Verissimo Correia issued a statement saying the military had dissolved all state institutions and set up a military committee to restore democracy.

Correia said the army was imposing a night curfew and that army chiefs would meet the government later Sunday. President Kumba Yalla was believed to be in his home.

Yalla came to power in January 2000 after elections designed to end chronic unrest following an army revolt in 1998 but he has since faced two attempted coups and has had to reshuffle the government several times.

This cannot be allowed to stand. The first thing these over-ambitious army officers always say after pulling one of these stunts is that they intend to "restore democracy"; the one thing about which one can be certain is that they have no such aim in mind. What one would like to see now is a forceful response from regional and Western powers, warning the coup-plotters to either give up their arms immediately or expect to have constitutional government restored by means of external force. The message needs to be sent in Africa that the when soldiers could get away with overthrowing elected governments are over.