Saturday, November 29, 2003

Race, Sex and Crime in Japan

This story has all the ingredients for a gigantic media circus to develop - a young, blonde, British "hostess" found hacked up into eight pieces, and a wealthy Japanese playboy accused of murdering her, as well as drugging and raping as many of 400 other women over a 20-year period, 150 of them white foreigners (or "Westerners", as the euphemism goes nowadays).

On May 4, 2000, Lucie Blackman, wearing high heels and a silver and black ensemble coordinated to match her Samsonite luggage, disembarked from a 13-hour Virgin Atlantic flight from London to Tokyo and stepped into Japan's national nightmare. A former British Airways stewardess who prided herself on being, "chic, sophisticated and smart," Lucie sometimes did her hair even before going to the gym for a workout. So it made sense she would have her hair freshly coiffed now, the natural blond mane cut straight and falling across her striking, almost patrician English features like a curtain of glass beads. Concealing her blue eyes were a pair of oversize, Gucci-style sunglasses. Her nails were perfect little half-ellipses, the cuticles neatly trimmed.

Lucie's face, more than any other, would eventually become synonymous with millennial Tokyo's anxieties, aspirations and insecurities. When she vanished two months later into the Tokyo night, the subject of speculation, rumor and salacious gossip, she became the poster child, literally, of a nation that was suddenly unsure of where it was going and of what was happening to it.

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

Lucie had come because she had heard there was a fortune to be made in this glittering district simply by pouring drinks and making small talk with Japanese businessmen. To Western girls with a streak of adventure, this Japan has a curious appeal. They find out about hostessing while touring Asia, perhaps, and encountering women returning from Japan who tell stories about the big money. Some answer employment agency ads in overseas newspapers to work in Japan as "dancers" or "entertainers"—only to find themselves hostessing. Others are just passing through Tokyo, perhaps as the first stop on an Asian itinerary, and see there is easy money to be made rapping to inebriated Japanese. It was a friend's older sister in London who first told Lucie about the opportunities for an attractive young woman in Japan.

Very loosely descended from the geisha house tradition, hostess bars hire out women by the hour to act as companions for customers. Hostesses are not prostitutes; they are more like paid, platonic girlfriends. They may choose to sleep with a client, they may not. Although there are no official numbers on how many women work in hostess bars, it's estimated that hundreds of thousands labor throughout Japan in what is surely a multibillion-dollar industry. For the salaryman customers, hostess bars, with their posh atmosphere, beautiful women and steady flow of drinks, are a choice venue in which to try to impress a client or close a business deal. Most hostess clubs employ Japanese and other Asian women, but beginning in the early 1980s, more and more began to stock Western women. Of all the hostesses in Japan, the highest paid tend to be pretty, English-speaking, Caucasian, blond. Lucie met every requirement.

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

Lucie Blackman hated it all when she first arrived. The hours. The pressure to go out on dohans. She had worked for two years on BA's long-haul routes to Africa and the Americas, but she had seldom been away from her family home—where she still lived with her mother and younger sister and brother—in the London suburb of Sevenoaks, Kent, for more than four days in a row. After arriving in Tokyo, she phoned and e-mailed family almost daily, telling them she was homesick.

She had quit her job as a stewardess because, she complained to her sister, it left her feeling "permanently jet-lagged." Her annual salary at BA had been $18,700. A good hostess could earn that in two months. Before even boarding that flight for Tokyo she was anti-cipating the hostessing windfall, charging $1,400 to her credit card to buy a new bed that she planned to use when she returned from Japan. "Lucie was not the most intelligent person," says her sister Sophie, "nor was she stupid. She did the things a normal 21-year-old would do."

Lucie e-mailed her sister that working in the club was "like being an air hostess without the altitude." She phoned her mother once to tell her that a customer had offered her "a fantastic sum of money to sleep with him." Lucie said she laughed off the proposal, reminding her mother that her job was to pour drinks, light cigarettes and "discuss boring subjects like volcanoes." She confessed to Sophie that sometimes her customers spoke English with such thick accents, all she could do was nod. "I can't believe I am paid so much money just to pretend I am listening to them," she reported.

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

On July 1, a Saturday, Lucie went on a dohan with a customer from Casablanca. The man, whose name Lucie did not share with anyone, had offered her a prepaid mobile phone if she would accompany him to a restaurant near the beach. Her roommate Louise was still in bed in their six-tatami matted room when Lucie left. Louise recalls glimpsing Lucie on her way out in sandals and a black one-piece dress, and a silver necklace with hearts on it. They had plans to see each other in the evening, along with Scott. Lucie phoned Louise three times that day, first at 1:30 to say she had met her lunch date, then at 5:00 saying, "I'm being taken to the sea" and finally at 7:00 when she said, "I'll be back in half an hour." She phoned Scott a few minutes later with the same message. No one heard from her again.

The next day, Phillips received a call on her cell phone from a man who spoke in a thick accent and identified himself as Akira Takagi. He told her: "Lucie has joined a newly risen cult. She is safe and training in a hut in Chiba."

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

Most English-speaking Caucasian women working in Roppongi's hostess clubs don't realize they are part of the mizushobai. Within it they occupy a privileged position compared with the tens of thousands of Asian women who work in storefront shops churning out sex acts for prices listed on menu boards. Nor do hostesses encounter the obvious dangers faced by the hundreds of South American women, some as young as 16, who openly work as prostitutes on central Tokyo's backstreets.

Within the mizushobai, Caucasian hostesses are essentially paid the most for doing the least, but this does not shield them from stigma. "Some hostesses don't consider themselves part of the mizushobai because they are not having sexual intercourse," says Mizuho Fukushima, member of the Upper House of Japan's parliament and a high-profile women's rights advocate. "But people outside consider what they are doing part of the sex industry." Before she entered government, Fukushima in 1989 helped establish a private center called Help, which has assisted more than 2,000 women—most of them Asian but including an increasing number from Russia and South America—who have suffered from abuses such as coerced prostitution, physical intimidation and assault. Fukushima says, "I have taken foreign women who have been beaten up to the police or to the immigration department who have said to my face, 'What are you doing here? These women are here illegally.'" She adds that the officials try to justify turning away such cases, arguing: "What were these women expecting when they came here illegally?"

What is most troubling, says Fukushima, are the foreign women, mostly Asian, who have disappeared or died under mysterious circumstances over the years. "They are undocumented, so we don't have good numbers," she says. "The media barely covered this problem until Lucie's case. All of a sudden it was news when a white girl disappeared."

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

If there is one career path that captures the essence of post-bubble Japan, it is "failed real estate speculator." During the '80s and early '90s, real estate speculation had been the frothy center of Japan's double-espresso economy, with developers and brokers becoming that era's version of the more recent dotcom billionaires. Speculators like Joji Obara were the heroes of Japan's go-go era, driving their Bentleys and Rolls Royces, living in their mansions, dating their exotic blond girlfriends. This was the period, remember, when Japan was going to take over the world. Men like Joji Obara cast themselves as the Fibe Mini warriors on the vanguard of this Japanese invasion. Naoko Tomono, a journalist who has written extensively about Lucie's case for the weekly magazine Shukan Bunshon, offers a surprising insight into how some men in Obara's age group perceive his infamy as a serial rapist: "They respect him as a man comfortable going to expensive bars and picking up Western girls." Susumu Oda, professor of psychiatry at Gakuin University, who has worked with authorities on other high-profile criminal cases, says Obara is a "peculiar symbol" of men of his generation, "because he was obsessed with Caucasian women."

Cases like this one give the lie to ridiculous hypotheses of the sort advanced by Steve Sailer, according to which the disparities in interracial relationships are rooted in biological differences in "masculinity" and "femininity", with black males at the top for the former and Asian males at the bottom, and Asian females supposedly the most feminine and black women the least. If that were so, why would so many1 Japanese men be fixated on blonde white women?

Instead of resorting to far-fetched biological theorizing that assumes humans are automatons impervious to cultural influences, we are better off looking at the more down to earth and much better established factors - the influence of western advertising on perceptions of beauty everywhere around the world, and the nexus of racism and military-cum-economic superiority that established as a seemingly self-evident fact that "whatever is white is right" in the eyes of billions around the globe. Japanese men aren't born lusting after yellow-haired women, anymore than the men of our day are born drooling for the skeletal figures we regard as beautiful in our day. Physical beauty isn't an entirely culturally mediated perception, signs of health and youth being regarded positively in every culture of which there is a historical record, but it isn't all that hardwired either, once we get beyond such basics. If things were really as simple as genetically deterministic theories like to make them out to be, there would hardly be any need for the sheer notion of "fashion" to begin with. All sorts of physical types come in and out of fashion, and the androgynous beauties of the swinging 1920s are in sharp contrast to the buxom blondes of the Marilyn Monroe era.

As cruel as it may be to say so of someone who died in such a heinous manner, Lucie Blackman was certainly no great beauty by Western standards, though she wasn't ugly either. What she did possess was a set of physical traits - blondness, whiteness and Britishness - that rendered her a potent symbol of lustful aspiration amongst the denizens of the Japanese water-trade (the literal meaning of "mizu shobai"). Her great misfortune happened to lie in crossing paths with a sexual predator determined to live out the fantasies she embodied to him, at any cost, even of her life.

(1) And there are indeed many such men, as I have seen with my own eyes in Tokyo. To be white, blonde and female in that city is to be continuously bombarded with indecent proposals, however (un)attractive one might be.

Corporate Parasitism

I can't praise this New York Times editorial highly enough, so good is the job it does of laying out the manner in which small groups of self-interested parties can use lobbying to engage in aggressive rent-seeking at the cost of the larger society.

Sugar growers in this country, long protected from global competition, have had a great run at the expense of just about everyone else — refineries, candy manufacturers, other food companies, individual consumers and farmers in the developing world. But now the nation's sugar program, which guarantees a domestic price for raw sugar that can be as much as three times the world price, needs to be terminated. It has become far too costly to America's global economic and strategic interests.

The less defensible a federal policy is on its merits, the greater the likelihood that it generates (or originates from) a great deal of cash in Washington, in the form of campaign contributions. Sugar is a sweet case in point. The Fanjul brothers, Florida's Cuban-American reigning sugar barons who preside over Palm Beach's yacht-owning society, were alone responsible for generating nearly $1 million in soft-money donations during the 2000 election cycle. Alfonso Fanjul, the chief executive of the family-controlled Flo-Sun company, served as Bill Clinton's Florida co-chairman in 1992 — and even merited a mention in the impeachment-scandal Starr report, when Monica Lewinsky testified that the president received a call from him during one of their trysts. Meanwhile, brother Pepe is equally energetic in backing Republicans, so all bases are covered.

The Fanjuls harvest 180,000 acres in South Florida that send polluted water into the Everglades. (A crucial part of their business over the years has been to lobby not just against liberalization of the sugar trade, but against plans to have the sugar industry pay its fair share of the ambitious $8 billion Everglades restoration project.) The Fanjuls had been Cuba's leading sugar family for decades before Fidel Castro's takeover. Crossing the Straits of Florida, they bought land in the vicinity of Lake Okeechobee, which feeds the Everglades, and imported platoons of poorly paid Caribbean migrant workers. Their business was aided by the embargo on Cuban sugar. The crop is protected from other competition by an intricate system of import quotas that dates back to 1981.

The government does not pay sugar producers income supports as it does many other kinds of farmers. Instead, it guarantees growers like the Fanjuls an inflated price by restricting supply. Only about 15 percent of American sugar is imported under the quota rules, and while the world price is about 7 cents a pound, American businesses that need sugar to make their products must pay close to 21 cents. Preserving this spread between domestic and world sugar prices costs consumers an estimated $2 billion a year, and nets the Fanjuls — who have been called the first family of corporate welfare — tens of millions annually. The sugar exporters who are able to sell to the United States also benefit from those astronomical prices. The Dominican Republic is the largest quota holder, and one of the big plantation owners there is — surprise — the Fanjul family.

The sugar situation hurts American businesses and consumers, but its worst impact is on the poor countries that try to compete in the global agricultural markets. Their farmers might never be able to compete with corn or wheat farmers in the United States, even if the playing field were leveled. But they can grow cotton and sugar at lower prices than we can, no matter how advanced our technology. Our poorer trading partners bitterly resent the way this country feels entitled to suspend market-driven rules whenever it appears they will place American producers at a disadvantage.

Trade policy is one area in which I am completely in agreement with Paul Krugman1 and the New York Times editorial staff. The Bush administration has been much worse for the cause of free trade than the one that preceded it, though in fairness the sugar racket began quite a long time ago - and was aided and abetted by yet other self-professed Republican champion of free trade, Ronald Reagan.

(1) This isn't all that surprising - international trade is Krugman's area of core competence, and when he sticks to what he knows best he can be a paragon of clear-thinking and sobriety. What a shame, then, that he so rarely sticks to his knitting nowadays.

Thursday, November 27, 2003

Swinish Multitudes

The presidential ambitions of Filipino actor Fernando Poe Jr confirm me in the opinion that an unqualified electoral franchise in an underdeveloped country is nothing other than a guaranteed ticket to instability.

MANILA (Dow Jones)--Philippine financial markets are bracing for a slight fallout Thursday following confirmation that popular movie actor Fernando Poe Jr. will make a bid for the presidency in elections scheduled for May next year.

Investors fear an election victory for the 64-year-old Poe, a political neophyte, will lead to a repeat of the failed presidency of Joseph Estrada, himself an actor and close friend of Poe.

Estrada was elected president in 1998 with the Philippines' highest-ever margin but his presidency came to an abrupt end two-and-a-half years later due to a mass uprising amid allegations of corruption and misrule.

Not content with having experienced misrule by one crooked thespian, the people of the Philippines seem intent on repeating their mistake; but what else is one to expect of giving the indigent and illiterate a right to vote? Nowhere in the Western world did democracy emerge full-blown like Athena springing from the forehead of Zeus, and yet, whenever it is suggested that property and educational qualifications might be desirable in young democracies, the reaction is always one of outrage. I've had far too much experience with the way in which "democracy" works when impoverished illiterates constitute the majority of the voting class to buy into the delusion that "one man one vote" is always and everywhere the best policy. What usually happens in such contexts is that the name recognition of an "Erap", or a little moonshine and the odd bit of "dash" are all it takes to buy the peasants' loyalty at the voting booth.

It isn't an accident that Britain, the stablest of all the democracies, was also the one in which democratic rule emerged in the most peacemeal and organic manner; so peacemeal, in fact, that there are still 92 hereditory peers sitting in the House of Lords as of the date on which this is being written! In the fetishization of the universal franchise that is common amonst intellectuals, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that democracy is a means to a desired end, that end being a liberal constitutional order, and that those with neither the learning to value such an order, nor a financial stake in its' preservation, are unlikely to make the best guardians for it - hence, the emergence of buffoons and criminals like Estrada, Mugabe and Hugo Chavez.

Indo-European Languages: Cavalli-Sforza Was Right

It would seem that Luca Cavalli-Sforza and Colin Renfrew were right in hypothesizing that the spread of the European languages occurred by demic diffusion of Anatolean farmers.1

A family tree of Indo-European languages suggests they began to spread and split about 9,000 years ago. The finding hints that farmers in what is now Turkey drove the language boom - and not later Siberian horsemen, as some linguists reckon.

Russell Gray and Quentin Atkinson, of the University of Auckland in New Zealand use the rate at which words change to gauge the age of the tree's roots - just as biologists estimate a species' age from the rate of gene mutations. The differences between words, or DNA sequences, are a measure of how closely languages, or species, are related.

Gray and Atkinson analysed 87 languages from Irish to Afghan. Rather than compare entire dictionaries, they used a list of 200 words that are found in all cultures, such as 'I', 'hunt' and 'sky'. Words are better understood than grammar as a guide to language history; the same sentence structure can arise independently in different tongues.

The resulting tree matches many existing ideas about language development. Spanish and Portuguese come out as sisters, for example - both are cousins to German, and Hindi is a more distant relation to all three.

All other Indo-European languages split off from Hittite, the oldest recorded member of the group, between 8,000 and 10,000 years ago, the pair calculates.

Around this time, farming techniques began to spread out of Anatolia - now Turkey - across Europe and Asia, archaeological evidence shows. The farmers themselves may have moved, or natives may have adopted words along with agricultural technology. (emphasis added)

(1) For further details, see "The History and Geography of Human Genes", by L. Luca Cavalli-Sforza, Paolo Menozzi, and Alberto Piazza, 1994, Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-087540-4.

The EU's Takeover Plan - Washington Times Op-Ed

Now here's an issue that is of far-reaching importance, but isn't likely ever to appear on the front-page of any major newspaper, let alone on the popular blogs. I hardly ever read the Washington Times, much less take anything written in it at face value, but this opinion piece on the European Takeover Directive is one I am in total agreement with. The changes being proposed threaten to drain the legislation of all meaning.

In crafting a common law on regulating takeover bids, Europe is once again proving the hazards of building policies that sweep a continent. The balancing of so many interests in Europe may cause the lowest common denominator to prevail on takeover policy. An unholy combination of political horse-trading and protectionist sentiments have created within the European Union (EU) wide support for a flawed consensus on takeovers, which would, if approved, make it more difficult for U.S. companies to make bids for European corporations. Tomorrow, at an EU ministers' meeting in Brussels, key governments are expected to back the new takeover directive.
The United States has cautioned Europe that such a new takeover law would create a "fortress Europe" and could cause Europe to run afoul of World Trade Organization (WT0) provisions and international guidelines. Certainly, Europe would be bunkering down with its planned directive on takeovers, obstructing hostile bids, and, as a consequence, foreign capital that tends to flow where laws allow shareholder value to be optimized. Such a scenario would be bad not only for U.S. companies, but for European ones as well.
Crafting a continent-wide policy on takeovers was originally intended to make merger and acquisition activity more brisk in Europe. But the German government worried that such an outcome would lead to an onslaught of hostile takeovers on German companies —concerns that were echoed by Nordic countries. Though the efforts of Germany and others to protect their corporations from takeover bids were opposed by other European countries, such as Britain, Germany was successful in winning their agreement by making concessions in other areas.
Frits Bolkestein, the European Union's single market commissioner, has criticized the takeover proposal, backing U.S. claims that it would take Europe in the wrong direction. "This [compromise] proposal would take the heart out of the directive," he said. "It could tempt member states to allow barriers to takeovers that do not currently exist."
If Mr. Bolkestein remains firm in his opposition, then it would take a unanimous EU vote to override his position. The pressure on EU states to go along to get along with this provision has been intense. The European Commission has been trying for 14 years to form a European takeover law. Italy wants to see a deal struck before its rotating presidency ends this year and would apparently accept a procedural consensus — which is what the compromise appears to be.

Some context would be useful here. The real motivation behind German opposition to the takeover directive is the fear of the management of German companies like Volkswagen and BASF that agressive bids like that in 2000 between Vodafone and Telecom Italia1 for Mannesmann, would become commonplace, endangering the comfortable status quo in which families like the Piech clan were able to control the destinies of these giants despite holding relatively minute portions of the companies' stock.

The same rationale holds true for the Scandinavian countries, and in particular, for Sweden. To be concrete, the Wallenberg family, via the Investor AB vehicle, has been able to maintain an impressive degree of control over several of that country's top firms, including Saab, ABB, Ericsson, Electrolux and AstraZeneca, despite holding a marginal percentage of the shares in Investor AB itself. The Wallenbergs have been able to accomplish this feat because of the discriminatory manner in which voting rights have been apportioned to Investor stockholders, exploiting a provision of Swedish law that enables a firm to have two classes of shares that are otherwise identical, other than that Class A shareholders in Investor AB enjoy 10 more votes per share than do class B shareholders. The following snippet from a 1996 Time magazine article illustrates what is going on:

The firms operate largely independently and have their own stock listings, but most are Wallenberg-controlled behind the scenes, in line with the family motto, "Esse non vidare," which to the Wallenbergs means that it's better to be than to be seen. Three family trusts own 40% of the votes of Investor, which often has only a minority stake in the companies. The key to the empire's power is its clutch of so-called A shares, which usually have 10 times the voting rights of the regular B shares. In Electrolux, for instance, Investor has only 1.3% of the equity but 45% of the votes. Many of the companies' chairmen sit on Investor's board, often informally consulting one another on sailing or ski trips. The Wallenbergs' credo is active ownership and long-term investment. "We're not a conglomerate; we're a mixture of Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway and a Japanese keiretsu," says Claes Dahlback, Investor's long-serving president. Famed U.S. investor Buffett became a billionaire through his strategic stakes in a variety of firms, while the companies in a keiretsu industrial grouping share a common corporate culture.
This sort of racket would go by the wayside if the Takeover Directive were ever to be adopted in its' original guise, and the Wallenbergs have lobbied intensely to head off just such a possibility.

Now, why is all this important, you may ask? The Takeover Directive is of of the highest importance because if it were adopted, it would help create a robust market for corporate control in Europe, and that would mean, first and foremost, the death of "stakeholder capitalism", as managers would now be forced to cater to shareholder value above all else. This is just the sort of stimulus that is needed if European firms are to make the often wrenching changes required if they are to regain their role as engines of wealth creation (rather than mere wealth preservation), and the state most in need of this sort of change is the one putting up the fiercest resistance - Germany.

(1) A deal in which I personally had a role, albeit a minor one, to play.

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

Yet More Internet Explorer Vulnerabilities

I think the following says it all about Microsoft's commitment to "trustworthy computing":

Description:
Multiple vulnerabilities have been identified in Internet Explorer, which in combination can be exploited to compromise a user's system.

1) A redirection feature using the "mhtml:" URI handler can be exploited to bypass a security check in Internet Explorer, which normally blocks web pages in the "Internet" zone from parsing local files.

2) The above redirection feature can also be exploited to download and execute a malicious file on a user's system. Successful exploitation requires that script code can be executed in the "MyComputer" zone.

3) A cross-site scripting vulnerability can be exploited to execute script code in the security zone associated with another web page if it contains a subframe. This may potentially allow execution of script code in the "MyComputer" zone.

4) A variant of a fixed vulnerability can still be exploited to hijack a user's clicks and perform certain actions without the user's knowledge. [Typical MS nonsense isn't it? They treat the symptom, but don't bother to get down to addressing the underlying problem, leaving the way open for small variations on an old theme to cause new hassles.]

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

5) An error in the download functionality can be exploited to disclose a user's cache directory by supplying a "HTM" file extension and an invalid value in the "Content-Type:" header field. This issue does not affect all versions and may have been fixed by the latest patch for Internet Explorer.

The vulnerabilities have been reported in Internet Explorer 6.0. However, other versions may also be affected and have been added due to the criticality of these issues.

PoC exploits (Proof of Concept) are available. [In plain English: these are already live threats, and you can expect to see worms targeting these holes any day now.]

Solution:
Disable Active Scripting. [Yeah right. Kill off half of the functionality on your favorite websites, and you get to enjoy the obnoxious "ActiveX is Disabled" warning for free! Talk about a non-starter.]

Use another product. [Darn good advice, I'd say. A lot better than futzing around with active scripting for "safe" vs "unsafe" sites.]

(emphases added)

Well then, what are you waiting for? Spare yourself a lot of future anxiety, and go get a decent browser.

The Gentleman Doth Protest Too Much

There's always something delicious about catching a moralizing politician in the process of violating the very strictures he has spent so much time propagandizing for:

A vice chairman of a Louisville anti-pornography group was arrested Saturday night on a prostitution charge.

Police took John W. Riddle, 65, into custody after seeing him in a car at 17th and Rowan streets with a "known prostitute," according to the arrest report.

Riddle, of Clay Avenue in Okolona, is a vice chairman of the anti-pornography organization COMPASS. The organization, whose full name is Citizens of Metro for Property and Safety and Security, has been trying to stop adult bookstores and sex shops from opening near residential neighborhoods.

Riddle resigned his post yesterday, "and we have accepted," said Barbara Davis, another vice chairman of the group.

Police said that Riddle and Mary M. Perry, 42, were each charged with one count of prostitution after they told officers that Riddle had picked her up to have sex for money.

Riddle had a bottle of Viagra in his possession, according to the police report.

That Mr. Riddle took care to bring along a bottle of Viagra shows he had obviously taken the Boy Scouts' motto to heart - Be Prepared!

This story just confirms my suspicion that any public personality who spends too much time fulminating against sexual "immorality" is probably compensating for a few skeletons he has stuffed away in his own cupboard. What was that old saying about casting out the log in one's eye before removing the speck in your brother's?

Had to Happen Someday

Kevin Drum finally says something I wholeheartedly agree with!

I think that both liberals and conservatives have made the mistake of convincing themselves that Bush is a hard right ideologue — conservatives because they were so eager for a conservative president after eight years of Bill Clinton and liberals because it gives them a convenient object of hatred. But if you look a bit more closely you'll see that he's not.

It's true that Bush is temperamentally conservative, and it's also true that he sometimes does things that conservatives like: lowering taxes, for example, or invading Iraq. What's more, he talks the conservative talk pretty well, and all of this has fooled conservatives (and many liberals) into thinking that he does what he does out of deep devotion to conservative principles.

But he doesn't. I suspect that conservative eagerness for a conservative president has caused them to project their own views onto Bush, but Bernstein is right: Bush is just playing electoral politics. Tax cuts reward his rich contributors, invading Iraq was a crowd pleaser, the energy bill helped out his business pals, tariffs helped him with steel workers, the Medicare bill helps him with seniors, and the partial birth abortion bill helps him with the religious right. None of these things were truly driven by any kind of ideological purity.

This is why I'm much less certain than his supporters that Bush is planning to stay in Iraq. I doubt that he was truly motivated by the neocon grand plan or an unusual attraction to Middle East democracy as much as he was by a simple desire to get rid of Saddam Hussein. Now that that's done, he'll get out of Iraq without a second thought if it turns into a losing issue at the polls.

The good news for liberals in all this — a bit of a thin reed, but still — is that it just goes to show that plenty of liberal principles remain very popular, regardless of what the movement conservatives like to pretend, and George Bush and his advisors have tacitly acknowledged this by refusing to hew to the ideological line that the Heritage Foundation folks would like him to. They know it would be suicidal.

The bad news for liberals is that while ideological purity might not motivate Bush, winning does. He strikes me as the most single-minded party politician since at least LBJ, and he is bound and determined to win at all costs — both personally and for the Republican party. He's a fighter with a mean streak, and that means that 2004 is going to be one nasty election. Fasten your seat belts. (emphasis added)

I think the sentence I've highlighted captures the crux of the matter - Bush is pulling a Nixon, talking like a social conservative while acting like the most irresponsible of fiscal liberals. Behind all the big talk, there's simply no evidence that he holds any principle sacred other than getting re-elected. Just in case there's any doubt on the matter, take a look at this NYT article on the dog's dinner of a medicare bill that just passed. When you're done reading, go take a look at this Drezner post on just why this piece of legislation is just the sort of unpricipled panderfest that puts the lie to Krugman's claims that the Bush administration is enacting some sort of "radical rightwing" program - if only it were true!

Japanese Aesthetics on Display

I just thought these images captured by Jeremy Hadley of the excellent Antipixel blog too beautiful not to share.

Antipixel - Japanese Umbrellas
To see the post from which this image came, see this Antipixel post

And how do you like the following image,
Antipixel - Autumn in Gotokuji
from a post describing a visit to Tokyo's Gotokuji temple?

There's something I find deeply appealing about the Japanese aesthetic sensibility, and it is a pity that most Westerners don't get to learn more about this aspect of Japan. There's a lot more to the country's cultural life than video games and anime.

Saturday, November 22, 2003

Where Socialized Medicine Leads

One important issue that advocates of socialized medicine fail to consider is the detrimental effect it can have on individual freedom. Once "society" is paying your medical bills, it suddenly becomes society's business what you eat, how much exercise you get, whether you smoke or not, and even who you sleep with. After all, it is only reasonable to expect a bit of supervision in return for that "free" care - how else would it be possible to keep costs under control while keeping a decent level of service? This old Guardian story illustrates precisely what I'm talking about.

Smokers 'to sign pledge' with doctors


Nicholas Watt, political correspondent
Tuesday June 3, 2003

The Guardian

Smokers and overweight people will be asked to sign contracts with their doctors to agree a programme to quit smoking and lose weight under radical plans being drawn up by the government.

In an attempt to remind people of their own responsibilities the health secretary, Alan Millburn, is examining plans for patients and doctors to agree a formal programme of treatment.

Labour sources insisted last night that the plan, outlined in a Labour party policy document as part of preparations for the next general election manifesto, did not mean patients would be denied treatment if they refused to sign.

But the Labour document makes clear that patients, particularly overweight people and smokers, will be reminded that they must have a role in caring for themselves.

Under the new contracts, overweight people would be encouraged to exercise more and to eat a more balanced diet. The document says: "Agreements could be drawn up to help people to cut down or quit smoking, to lose weight, to take more exercise or to eat a more nutritious diet."

I'm not going to claim that socialized medicine would inevitably lead to government interference in our private choices, but I will say that under such a system, the incentives to meddle in people's lives, for bureaucrats and politicians looking for quick and relatively costless "victories", would be enormous. Just imagine the savings to "society" if the extremely obese, the chain-smokers or the sexually promiscuous could somehow be coerced into doing the "right" thing, or how much lighter the burden on "society" would be if the "useless eaters" in mental hospitals, homes for the aged or care facilities for the mentally retarded could be put out of their misery ("humanely", of course) ... It would be a miracle if such thoughts were never to cross some minister's mind.

UPDATE: For those who think the reasoning I've laid out farfetched or alarmist, I recommend reading this 1997 Reason article on Swedish eugenics. It most certainly could happen here, as it has happened plenty of other places in the past. In fact, places where it did happen late into the post-war era include Switzerland, Finland, Denmark, and (as recently as 1996) Japan.

Friday, November 21, 2003

A Tool for Learning the Japanese Kanji

Recently embarassed by my inability of late to reproduce more than the most rudimentary Japanese characters, I've decided to go back to basics and re-educate myself in the meaning of at least the first 600 characters in the 1,945 character set considered mandatory for school leavers. I'm putting this link up on the off chance that someone else might find this Java applet of use as well. がんばりましょうねえ。

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

Socialized Medicine Done Right

At last, an insightful piece on universal coverage that lays out just the sort of proposal that I've long championed as most likely to work.

The public has good reason to be worried about health coverage. After five years of relative stability, insurance premiums, prescription-drug prices and other costs have soared. This year, premiums went up nearly 14 percent, with those paid by employees increasing nearly 50 percent since 2000. The number of Americans without health insurance increased more than 5 percent just in the last year. And strikes by workers in Los Angeles and elsewhere showed that health coverage is the flashpoint of labor discord.

As a solution, many policymakers are advocating small reforms like a Medicare prescription drug benefit and expansion of the Children's Health Insurance Program. Unfortunately, more services for some groups may increase costs and force reductions in coverage for others.

What we need is a fair proposal that is simple, efficient and appealing to disparate constituencies. For more than a decade, as members of the medical and economics communities, we have advocated such an alternative: universal health care vouchers.

This colum brings to mind a couple of discussions I've had on Matthew Yglesias' blog, in which I have repeatedly made clear my belief that the "single payer" system advocated by so many on the American left was the worst possible choice one could make, and that the admiration on the left for the British NHS was severely misplaced. Better, I said, that a universal healthcare voucher scheme be initiated. On neither occasion did my criticisms receive the friendliest of receptions, and in consequence I would love to see what my erstwhile opponents will make of this opinion piece (written in part by a Stanford professor emeritus of economics, no less, for those who think that all wisdom must issue from the mouths of the credentialed.)

Biometric Snake Oil

Slashdot has a good discussing going on biometrics and its' shortcomings. The long and short of it is that those who, in the name of "security", would undermine our privacy by imposing biometric identification requirements, are selling false hopes. We will end up no safer, but considerably less free, if we go along with the plans of those pushing biometrics as wonder-weapons in the fight against crime, illegal immigration, terrorism or whatever new bugaboo is topmost in the news coverage at any given time.

NB: I suggest following the discussion by setting the filter threshold to 3 or 4.

Friday, November 14, 2003

Trade, Not Aid, for Africa

The New York Times has a very interesting article on the importance the African Growth and Opportunity Act is having for Africa. Unfortunately, the article is terribly marred by the marxist mindset of its' author, a Mr. Marc Lacey.

To hear President Yoweri Museveni tell it, AGOA, the African Growth and Opportunity Act, approved by Congress in 2000, is the best thing the West has done for Africa since independence.

AGOA, which reduced or eliminated tariffs and quotas on more than 1,800 items, has drawn similar factories across Africa as foreign investors, mostly from Asia, seize upon its incentives to give this underdeveloped continent a chance.

For workers the job can be as grueling as a day in the fields, still Africa's most common way of making a living. The Tri-Star workers, all new to formal employment, say their shoulders ache and their feet swell by quitting time, which bosses sometimes extend into the evening if a big deadline looms.

But at least they have work. Job creation has been dramatic. For the first time in some African countries, the largest employer is no longer the federal government but a private enterprise. Kenya has projected 50,000 AGOA-related jobs. Lesotho estimates it has created 10,000 new jobs in the last year, most of them going to young women.

"Made in Uganda," say some of the tags on clothing sent to Target, Mervyn's and the Children's Place. "Made in Lesotho," say others bound for stores like the Gap and Limited.

The labels, representing a tiny percentage of apparel imports to the United States, give tremendous pride to countries that have long been at the margins of the global trading system.

Although products from oil to umbrellas to fresh yams are included under the trade law, clothing exports appear to be giving stagnant African economies the biggest stimulus.

Now here's the part of the article that really pisses me off:

While jobs have been created, most of those getting rich from AGOA are not Africans but Asian investors, rising numbers of whom have returned to Uganda after being expelled in the 1970's by the former dictator Idi Amin.

To which my response is "So bloody what?" What are the Africans contributing here other than commodity labor? How much would said labor be worth were it not for these Asian investors? We're talking about countries in which up to 50 percent unemployment rates are commonplace, and yet this economically illiterate journalist is writing as if these workers, who ought to be grateful for having jobs at all, were somehow being cheated. Here we see on display another paid-up subscriber to the "labor theory of value" fallacy. But it gets worse:

To fill the jobs, Uganda had a countrywide recruiting campaign, with government officials aiding in the process. Workers take home $40 a month, live in a company dormitory and eat three free meals a day at the company canteen. The jobs attract plenty of interest among Africa's legion of unemployed even if workers sometimes complain that the salaries — above average in the local market — go far quicker than they imagined.

"The products we're making are fetching a lot of money," said Rebecca Bagonza, 28, who has a diploma in social work but could find no other job than the one at Tri-Star. "Shouldn't the people who make the clothes get some of that money?"

There are two things to be pointed out here, the first of which is that, contrary to Ms. Bagonza's fancies, textile manufacturing is far from being a highly profitable line of business; but putting that aside for the moment, shouldn't someone point out to this genius that she and others like here are already getting "some of that money"? It's called a salary, for goodness sake! But what sort of thinking ought one to expect from a person with "a diploma in social work"? The West exports its' silliest ideas with ease, but the ones that make it rich don't transfer so easily. If it were up to me, I'd ban all teachers of professional victimhood under the guise of sociology, colonial studies and the like from stepping foot on African soil.

This economic stupidity isn't confined to New York Times journalists and young women with worthless diplomas, however.
In an embarrassment to the president, who visited Washington earlier this month to urge American officials to extend AGOA benefits, hundreds of Uganda's AGOA workers recently walked off their jobs, accusing their supervisors of exploiting them. The AGOA girls wanted to form a union, a kind of protection that is weak in Uganda and throughout Africa.

The boss at Tri-Star, Veluppillai Kananathan, a Sri Lankan businessman, promptly fired nearly 300 workers whom he considered trouble makers.

The women marched to Parliament, camped on the lawn for nearly a week and won the sympathy of some top government officials. "The AGOA girls have a legitimate case," Dr. David Ogaram, the labor commissioner, said.

Of course Mr. David Ogaram would say that; how else could he justify his existence in a country in which the lack of productive uses for labor is the most pressing problem? Why does Uganda even need a labor commissioner anyway? I suspect this Ogaram character is just one more government parasite installed in a sinecure as a favor to some friend or relative of Museveni's. At any rate, my sympathies are entirely with Mr. Kananathan, who did the right thing in firing these 300 malcontents. If jobs are so available for the taking that these chappies feel in the mood to unionize, they ought to be able to find other work elsewhere with ease, ought they not? But let us now turn our attentions to America, where a certain president, who came into office promising to champion free trade, now feels it incumbent upon him to punish the African ingrates for daring to challenge him to live up to his promises.

Next year, AGOA could be weakened in another way. As it is now, most of the apparel shipped to the United States from Africa comes from fabric made outside the continent, usually from Asia. Unless a waiver is approved by Congress, AGOA will soon require that the fabric originate in Africa.

That sounds like just what would be needed to restart Africa's shuttered textile mills. But more likely, experts say, such a requirement would raise costs for the apparel factories and prompt many of them to move out of Africa.

The lobbying campaign to improve AGOA has already begun in the halls of Congress. But a stumbling block has emerged: trade officials in the Bush administration are upset at Africa's defiant stand against trade subsidies at the recent trade organization talks in Cancún, Mexico. Enhancing AGOA is not on the fast track, officials say.

Now, someone please tell me, in what way does Bush differ from a Richard Gephardt or a Howard Dean on free trade? Clearly none of them understand it, much less believe in the concept. What reason is there for a libertarian to support Bush, other than tax cuts? Frankly, I'm beginning to give up completely on this administration, so relentlessly has it disappointed my hopes.

Thursday, November 13, 2003

Nicholas Kristof is Reading My Mind

Now Nicholas Kristof is saying precisely what I've been saying for ages now - that the sheer intensity of the vitriol being directed at Bush by the Democrats will likely backfire. This sort of foaming at the mouth by Clinton's enemies only succeeded in making them look deranged, and Clinton a victim deserving of the public's sympathy; there is no reason to believe that the results will be any different now that the rage is being directed in the opposite political direction.

Considering the savagery with which the Snarling Right excoriated President Clinton as a "sociopath," blocked judicial appointments, undermined U.S. military operations from Kosovo to Iraq, hounded Vincent Foster and then accused the Clintons of murdering him, it is utterly hypocritical for conservatives to complain about liberal incivility.

But they're right.

Liberals have now become as intemperate as conservatives, and the result — everybody shouting at everybody else — corrodes the body politic and is counterproductive for Democrats themselves. My guess is that if the Democrats stay angry, then they'll offend Southern white guys, with or without pickups and flags, and lose again.

A new report from the Pew Research Center says that America is more polarized now than at any time since its polling series began in 1987. Partly that's because it used to be just the Republicans who were intense in their beliefs, while now both sides are frothing.

The latest Progressive magazine features the article "Call Me a Bush-Hater," and The New Republic earlier published "The Case for Bush Hatred."

I see the fury in my e-mail messages. In a fairly typical comment, one reader suggested that President Bush and his aides are "lying, cynical greedy pirates who deserve no better than a firing squad." At this rate, soon we'll all be so rabid that Ann Coulter will seem normal.

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

Anyone who isn't concerned by the growing political incivility in this country doesn't remember how the antagonisms in Europe became so caustic that they often blocked governance (not to mention triggered civil wars in Spain and Greece). Already, in this country the public vitriol discourages public service.

The left should have learned from Newt Gingrich that rage impedes understanding — and turns off voters. That's why President Bush was careful in 2000, unlike many in his party, to project amiability and optimism.

Core Democratic voters are becoming so angry that some are hoping for bad economic figures and bad Iraq news just to hurt President Bush. At this rate, Democrats risk turning themselves into an American version of the old British Labor Party under Michael Foot, which reliably blasted the Tory government and reliably lost elections.

Paul Krugman, are you listening? Howard Dean? It doesn't matter how right you are in your criticisms of the administration's policies; delivering said critiques as if you were Ahab, and Bush your great white whale, only detracts from your credibility, by making you look like a monomaniacal partisan. The histrionic style of commentary may delight your base, but it is simply a turn-off to the rest of us, and without the support of at least some floating voters, the Democrats don't have a prayer of ever regaining power.

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Salon Magazine - Yellow Porn

I discovered this article through a comment on Matthew Yglesias' weblog. I find it intriguing because of the way in which it treats an issue most people would rather not talk about.

The idea for Asian-American erotica, or "yellow porn" as Hamamoto calls it, took root in 1998, when he began to ask students in his class on theoretical perspectives in Asian-American studies whom they fantasized about sexually. Invariably, the images were of white, blond-haired beauties, both male and female. What that meant to Hamamoto was that the sexuality of black, brown and yellow bodies had been subjugated. Asian-Americans of both genders didn't view each other as sexual beings. He laid out his thesis for making an Asian-American porn video in an essay titled "The Joy F**K Club" that was published in an academic journal in 1998.

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

"Asian-Americans are stereotyped in a negative way," Rick Lee, creator of the porn site Asian-man.com, says in "Masters of the Pillow." "A straight, Asian-American guy is impossible to find in porn. If you find one, he's gay and a bottom."

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

The stereotype of the asexual, geeky Asian guy has endured, affecting much more than porn. During the last 30 years, interracial dating has become common in the United States. Asian-American women are among the most likely to date or marry someone of another race, to the dismay of many Asian-American men. According to the 2000 census, Asian-American women married white spouses 3.08 times more often than Asian-American men did. And if the media is any indication, Asian men aren't viewed as sexually desirable by much of American society. This, he says, leads to the conflict between the sexes that Hamamoto said he is trying to quell. (emphasis added)

Internalized racism is a real phenomenon, and nowhere does it reveal itself more awkwardly than in the choices people make with regards to their sexual partners. While I don't think there's anything in the slightest bit wrong about people choosing to cross racial boundaries in seeking mates, one thing I know for a fact is that there's a reason why certain interracial pairings are a lot more common than others, a reason that has little to do with accidents of circumstance, and everything to do with nasty archetypes that are still at work in the world today - the virile black brute ("Mandingo", OJ Simpson), the promiscuous black virago ("welfare mothers driving cadillacs"), the submissive geisha ("Madame Butterfly", "Me love you long time"), the cunning but passive Asian male ("Charlie Chan", "Fu Manchu") ... These notions hardly need spelling out to any adult with more than a passing familiarity with the culture.

Are You an Austrian?

Yet another silly quiz, this time with an economics twist. Hosted by the Ludwig von Mises institute, this quiz attempts to match your views on economic questions to various schools of thought, including the Austrian, the Chicago (Neoclassical), the Keynesian and the Socialist schools. My results for the shorter, 10-question version of the quiz can be obtained via the following link:

Austrian Economics Quiz Results

As is clear, I'm closer to the Neoclassical school of economics in my thinking than I am to the Austrians (though there are actually quite a few points on which I am in agreement with the latter.) For one thing, I find the Austrian focus on the money supply somewhat ... obsessive. For another, I am a firm believer in antitrust, and I think any school of economics that fails to take account the existence of natural monopolies like Microsoft, and the need to rein them in, is one that has lost touch with reality to some degree. Economics isn't set theory, and one can't just pick a set of axioms a la ZFC, and then proceed to build a mighty edifice without any concern for the piddling matter of empirical confirmation. If there's one thing one learns in mathematics, it is that axioms that are "self evidently true" often turn out to be anything but - take Euclid's Parallel Postulate, for instance, or the Axiom of Choice. If economics is to be regarded as anything more than an empty exercise in theoretical system-building, at some point its' predictions must be tested against reality, and this is something the Austrians have shown a marked resistance to doing.

Abysmal Support for the Draft EU Constitution

If the following Telegraph article is to be believed, the current draft of the proposed EU constitution has negligible support amongst the European population, but the question arises - will their political masters listen? The omens aren't good.

EU constitution Faces Defeat

The draft European constitution has failed to inspire Europe's citizens and is likely to be defeated in referendums next year unless rewritten, says a survey.

Support for the 230-page document was negligible among key states certain to hold a vote, falling as low as five per cent in Holland and three per cent in Denmark, said the EU-wide poll yesterday.

Most people with any view on the matter wanted the text "partially" or "radically modified" or abandoned, though most supported the abstract principle of an EU constitution.

Britons were the most hostile, with 35 per cent calling for outright rejection. But citizens in all of the EU's current and future states appeared disdainful of the document.

Support for the draft stands at 11 per cent in Germany followed by France (10 per cent), Spain (seven), Austria (six) and Finland (four).

The survey, published by the European Commission, will bolster calls by the Conservatives and the French opposition parties for a referendum, showing 86 per cent support for a vote in Britain and 92 per cent in France.

It emerged at the weekend that Downing Street has been pleading with Paris to avoid a vote, fearing that it could create unstoppable momentum for Britain to follow suit. President Jacques Chirac is considering the risk of a populist rebellion by French Eurosceptics. (emphasis added)

It's pretty remarkable that the British government should go to such shameful lengths to frustrate the will of its' own population, isn't it? Here we see the entire problem with the whole European project: it is a top-down, elitist, anti-democratic edifice being imposed in the face of indifference or even outright opposition on the part of the peoples who must live under it. If the European Union were merely about free trade and free movement of persons across borders, I would be ardently for it, but Europe's elites aren't content with leaving it at that. Instead they seem to have decided to use the whole structure as a means of succesively stripping their citizens of any choice in the way in which their lives are to be run. All power is to be centralized in Brussels, and an incestuous cadre of Eurocrats and former national politicians (who glide into positions of patronage in a European version of amakudari) will get to set the rules for hundreds of millions as they see fit, free of the silly constraints imposed by elections and the like.

How Long Should Patents Last?

Here is a link to a Cowles Foundation reprint of William Nordhaus' paper on the issue.

William D. Nordhaus - "The Optimum Life of a Patent: Reply", American Economic Review 62, 1972.

Particularly interesting is the following snippet from the concluding section of the paper:

Taking account of all the problems, the following conclusions seem to be justified.

First a fixed patent life is not optimal in theory, although it may be unavoidable in practice. If we are to err on one side, the analysis suggests too long a patent life is better than too short a patent life. For run-of-the-mill inventions, the losses from monopoly are small compared to the gains from invention. The best way to prevent abuse is to ensure that trivial inventions do not receive patents.

Second, the complications arising from risk, drastic inventions, imperfect product markets, and "inventing around" patents generally point to a longer rather than a shorter patent life.

An interesting undertaking would be to reapply the analysis in the context of software patents, and see whether Nordhaus' conclusions still apply. I'm sure somebody has to have done the work already: anybody know where to look?

Sunday, November 09, 2003

Why Affirmative Action isn't a Long Term Solution

This NYT article ought to make it clear that as racial boundaries continue to blur in the United States, affirmative action will grow increasingly unworkable.

Patria Rodriguez, an advertising sales director for a women's magazine in New York, takes after her father. With light brown skin and thick, curly hair, she says she resembles the actress Rosie Perez, but some people have asked her if she is Italian, and others have told her she looks like the singer Sade.

Like many Hispanic Americans, Ms. Rodriguez does not think of herself as black or white. "I acknowledge I have both black and white ancestry in me, but I choose to label myself in nonracial terms: Latina. Hispanic. Puerto Rican. Nuyorican," Ms. Rodriguez, 31, said. "I feel that being Latina implies mixed racial heritage, and I wish more people knew that. Why should I have to choose?"

As the Hispanic population booms, the fluid ways that she and other Latinos view their racial identities are drawing more attention and fueling the national debate over racial classifications — what they mean, what they should be and whether they are needed at all.

Now members of the United States' largest minority group, the nation's 38.8 million Hispanics, nearly half of them immigrants, harbor notions of race that are as varied as their Spanish and that often clash with the more bipolar views of many other Americans.

White? Black? Try "moreno," "trigueno" or "indio," terms that indicate skin shades and ancestry and accommodate several hues.

This heterogeneity has stumped the Census Bureau. In its 2000 count, almost half the Hispanic respondents refused to identify themselves by any of the five standard racial categories on the census forms: white, black, Asian, American Indian or Alaska native and a category that includes natives of Hawaii and the Pacific Islands. The agency has since been surveying Hispanics to find a way to pinpoint them racially.

Affirmative action, whatever its' merits as a means of correcting past injustices, cannot and must not be allowed to become an open-ended policy that is institutionalized into American life. Do we really want the re-emergence of a society in which people's rights and opportunities are determined by their racial classification as "mulattoes", "quadroons", "octaroons" and so forth, and government bureaucrats work to ensure that everyone is slotted into the "correct" racial category? That looks to me very much like the apartheid South Africa of old, rather than something to aspire to.

Saturday, November 08, 2003

The Economist on Increasing Partisanship in America

This article reads almost as if it were cribbed directly from my own private thoughts, so thoroughly is it in line with what I've long been convinced about the tone of political debate in America nowadays.

With the decline of swing voters, there seems less and less point in running presidential campaigns to appeal to the slim middle. Instead, elections have become contests to mobilise core supporters. The 2000 and 2002 elections were both turn-out races.

The upshot is that politics has become warfare. What matters most is the size and bloodthirstiness of your troops, not winning over neutrals. Politicians take the first opportunity to reach for weapons of mass destruction, such as Bill Clinton's impeachment or the recall of Governor Gray Davis in California. It is no longer possible to agree to disagree. Your enemies must be “Stupid White Men”, guilty of “Treason”, who live in a world of “Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them” (to quote the titles of three of this year's political bestsellers).

Friday, November 07, 2003

CNN - Turkey 'will not send Iraq troops'

This is extremely good news, even if it might not seem so on the face of it. The notion of sending Turkish troops to police Iraqis always struck me as utterly boneheaded, and more a signal of the Bush administration's desperation than anything else. One shudders on imagining what might have happened if Turkish troops, notorious as they are for brutality in their own country, were given the task of policing Kurdish Iraqis.

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) -- Turkey will not send its troops to Iraq to relieve U.S. forces there after plans for a deployment raised sharp opposition from Iraqis, the Anatolia news agency reported Friday.

The Turkish parliament's decision last month to approve troops for Iraq had been a major victory for the United States, which has pressed hard for Turkey to join peacekeeping efforts. Turkey would be the first major Muslim nation to send troops to bolster the U.S.-led occupation.

But Iraq's U.S.-appointed Governing Council quickly voiced opposition to having troops from Turkey -- or any of Iraq's neighbors -- on its soil. Many Iraqis were suspicious of the Turks, fearing they were seeking to dominate the country or would clash with Kurds in the north.

Forbes: Soros Moscow Premises Raided in Property Dispute

I wonder how many people will continue to argue that Putin is just applying a broom to a nest of gangsters, given this new development. Then again, the usual suspects might just call Soros a parasitical capitalist exploiter thoroughly deserving of "punishment" anyway.

One thing that is striking though - apart from being rich, Soros happens to share in common with Khodorkovsky, Berezovsky and Abramovich one other attribute that Russians have never been particularly fond of, and that is membership in that group that was once known by the euphemism of "rootless cosmopolitans." Why aren't any good old, Orthodox Russian boys being trifled with? Are we to believe that the only rich people who fall foul of Russian laws are the Jewish ones?

MOSCOW, Nov 7 (Reuters) - Men in battle-fatigues raided the Moscow city centre headquarters of billionaire benefactor George Soros taking away all its documents in the climax to a long- running commercial dispute, radio Ekho Moskvy said on Friday.

Yekaterina Geniyeva, president of Soros' Moscow-based Open Society Institute, told the radio station the attackers identified themselves as working for Sektor-1 company, which says it owns the building in the city centre.

"The most terrifying thing was that they took away all our documents. We do not know where," she said, adding that the foundation did not recognise Sektor-1's ownership rights over the building.

She said she did not think there was any direct link between the incident and the arrest of oil billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, which some fear may herald a state crackdown on big business. But she said there might be "some connection". (emphasis added)

Miss Geniyeva's statements are hard to comprehend; if she doesn't think there's "any direct link", why bother stating that there might be "some connection"? It sounds to me like someone trying to stay on the good side of the Putin government while hinting to the world at large about the real state of affairs.

UPDATE: This BBC report has more details on the story. Particularly interesting is the following snippet:

On Tuesday [Soros] warned that Russia "may now be entering a phase of state capitalism, where all the owners of capital realise that they are dependent on the state".

His comments came in an interview with the weekly Moskovskiye Novosti, recently acquired by Mr Khodorkovsky.

He denounced the 25 October arrest of the oil tycoon as "persecution".

This gives me more confidence in stating that there is indeed a connection between this raid and Khodorkovsky's arrest. How fitting it is, given what I've said about Putin in the recent past, that he's now sending goons to shut down the offices of the Open Society Foundation, as an open society is precisely what the man seeks to prevent from emerging.

Wednesday, November 05, 2003

German General Fired for Backing Slur on Jews

The whole furore aroused by CDU MP Martin Hohmann offers yet one more reason to feel less than sanguine about European antisemitism. At the same time, it is encouraging to see that this General Günzel character was so swiftly fired, even if the CDU has still to disown Hohmann.

BERLIN, Nov. 4 — The commander of a German special forces army unit was dismissed Tuesday after he praised a conservative member of Parliament for a speech that has been widely criticized here as anti-Semitic.

The dismissed officer, Gen. Reinhard Günzel, was relieved of his command by Defense Minister Peter Struck, who called him a "lone, confused general who agreed with an even more confused statement made by a conservative member of Parliament."

"His remarks damaged the Federal Republic of Germany as well as the German Army," Mr. Struck said.

The firing of General Günzel is the latest event in a scandal that has been simmering in Germany in the few days since the disclosure of remarks about Jews made by Martin Hohmann, an otherwise obscure member of the German Parliament who belongs to the opposition Christian Democratic Union.

In his speech, made in early October to local constituents, Mr. Hohmann called Jews "a race of perpetrators." Mr. Hohmann was making the argument that Germans still labor under the burden of responsibility for the crimes of the Nazis, while other people who have committed atrocities present themselves as "innocent lambs."

The Jews, he said, were prominent in the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, during which millions were killed.

"Thus one could describe Jews with some justification as a nation of perpetrators," Mr. Hohmann said. "That may sound horrible, but it would follow the same logic with which one describes the Germans as a race of perpetrators."

It's easy to see the appeal that this sort of moral equivalence must have for many Europeans, troubled as they are by the reality of so many of their forefathers having been accomplices in genocide. I don't think it coincidental that it was the Dutch Gretta Duisenberg, wife of the head of the ECB, who saw fit to state that Hitler's troops had been better behaved than those of the Israeli state, "with the exception of the Holocaust" (and what a trifling exception it was too!) How much easier it must be to sleep at night knowing one has shown "those people" to be just as bad as their former persecutors.

The Political Compass

Via Matthew Yglesias. According to the results of the test, my score was as follows:

Your political compass
Economic Left/Right: 4.62
Libertarian/Authoritarian: -3.38

I would have thought it'd be pretty difficult for any sensible person to be much to my right on the economic axis, but going by Tim Lambert's visual chart, it seems I was wrong. What I find most amusing about the results on the chart is that despite being one of those nasty right-wingers Matthew Yglesias' fellow party members love to hate, I am actually quite a bit more "liberal" in my social views than he is! Or, to put things slightly differently, Yglesias has an authoritarian streak to him that I seem to be lacking. The question then arises; if Matthew is neither particularly "liberal" in his social or economic views, why is he so partisan a Democrat?

Tuesday, November 04, 2003

Words Worth Committing to Memory

I discovered the following quotation, attributed to David Hume, while reading Julie Novak's Public Choice Theory: An Introduction, which I came across while searching for a decent primer for use in enlightening a certain party.

In contriving any system of government, and fixing the several checks and controuls of the constitution, every man ought to be supposed a knave, and to have no other end, in all his actions, than private interest. By this interest, we must govern him, and, by means of it, make him, notwithstanding his insatiable avarice and ambition, co-operate to public good. Without this, ... we shall in vain boast of the advantages of any constitution, and shall find, in the end, that we have no security for our liberties or possessions, except the good-will of our rulers; that is, we shall have no security at all (Hume, [1741] (1985): 43).

If you've heard about public choice theory and don't know what the fuss is about, or if you've been witness to some irate liberal's attack on public choice theory as a system of thought, I highly suggest reading Novak's article. Heck, I suggest reading it with an open mind even if you fancy yourself a committed liberal; it is always beneficial, I think, to test one's conceptions against the arguments of others. Nietschze once said "What does not kill me makes me stronger", and in the realm of ideas, at least, he was absolutely right.

Monday, November 03, 2003

A PowerPC Chip for Xbox 2

This story doesn't make sense to me as it stands. It makes neither financial nor technological sense.

Microsoft on Monday said it would use IBM chips in its next generation Xbox game and consumer electronics devices, dealing a blow to Intel and providing a much needed boost for IBM's lossmaking chip business.

The move is part of Microsoft's efforts to try and leapfrog Sony, the Japanese consumer electronics giant, by producing an advanced Xbox that can move beyond games and sit at the heart of consumer home entertainment systems.

"We plan to deliver unprecedented and unparalleled entertainment experiences to consumers while creating new engines of growth for the technology and entertainment industries," said Robbie Bach, senior vice-president of Microsoft's home and entertainment division.

Richard Doherty, head of US research company Envisioneering Group, said the decision was a "significant win for IBM and a loss for Intel" that would give IBM "an important hold in a wide range of consumer electronics products".

The first, and most important, question to ask is "What about backwards compatibility?" Surely Microsoft, of all companies, must realize the importance of the next generation of a platform being able to run all the software available for the previous one, and if Microsoft's own history weren't instructive enough, Sony's success with such a strategy in the Playstation 2 ought to have sent the same message. How does Microsoft expect to be able to emulate a 733 Mhz Pentium III at full speed without opting for a prohibitively expensive PowerPC chip?

The second difficulty I see with this agreement is the fact that, historically speaking, no firm has had the economies of scale to keep up with AMD and Intel in the price/performance race, and there is no obvious reason why this should be about to change. Why go with a platform that is almost certain to give you less bang for the buck than you might have had with an x86 chip? Given that both Sony and Nintendo are apparently committed to staying in the console race for yet one more iteration, Microsoft doesn't really have the luxury to simply dismiss price and performance issues out of hand.

The agreement between Microsoft and IBM only really makes sense to me if seen as part of a larger story, to wit, a divorce between Microsoft and Intel. The Itanium architecture has still to gain serious traction in the server market, and with the release of AMD's Opteron, it seems safe to say that Itanium is doomed to remain at best a niche product. Microsoft, for its' own part, has been actively working over the last three years on moving all Windows development to the .NET Framework, rather than relying on the old Win32 system calls with which most developers have been familiar. One key advantage of this transition will be to confer complete processor-independence on code written to the .NET Framework, as the bytecode produced by Visual Studio .NET will only be converted, on the fly, to native binary code at runtime.

When we combine the aforementioned trends together, the picture that emerges is of a software monopoly intent on maintaining its' independence of the chip manufacturers that are its' economic complementors. Microsoft has long benefited from the incessant competition that has been the rule in the x86 chip business, which has enabled ever more powerful processors to come to market at ever lower prices, even as Microsoft has consistently hiked the price of Windows: the end result of all this has been that an ever greater percentage of a new PC's cost has been attributable to the Microsoft tax, rather than to the cost of the physical parts of the machine. I suspect that the fundamental divergence between the interests of Intel and Microsoft have finally come to a head, and that is what explains a deal that makes so little sense from a strictly technical point of view.

Israel as the Biggest Threat to World Peace?

As sensational a claim as the above headline may seem, it appears to be a widely held belief amongst the European population.

srael has been described as the top threat to world peace, ahead of North Korea, Afghanistan and Iran, by an unpublished European Commission poll of 7,500 Europeans, sparking an international row.

The survey, conducted in October, of 500 people from each of the EU's member nations included a list of 15 countries with the question, 'tell me if in your opinion it presents or not a threat to peace in the world'. Israel was reportedly picked by 59 per cent of those interviewed.

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

'This poll is an indication that Europeans have bought in, "hook, line and sinker", to the vilification and demonisation campaign directed against the state of Israel and her supporters by European leaders and media,' said Rabbi Marvin Hier, the Wiesenthal Centre's founder.

'This shocking result that Israel is the greatest threat to world peace, bigger than North Korea and Iran, defies logic and is a racist flight of fantasy that only shows that anti-semitism is deeply embedded within European society, more then at any other period since the end of the war,' he added.

I find these numbers simply astonishing. This is the sort of thing that makes you wonder how well you really understand the people you think you know; how can 3 in 5 Europeans possibly believe that Israel is the biggest threat to peace in the world?

Even keeping in mind what I've said here in the past about breezily equating criticism of Israel with antisemitism, I must with the greatest reluctance agree with Rabbi Hier's remarks. There is plenty to dislike about Israel's policies, not least being the insistence on the continued expansion of settlements regardless of the state of negotiations, but to buy into the notion that Israel, which has been on the receiving end of Arab aggression throughout its' existence, is a greater danger to peace than Iran or North Korea - that is simply prejudice talking, rather than any sort of considered opinion.

Sunday, November 02, 2003

Justice Delayed in Belgium

Here's a question I'd like to know the answer to: why is it that Belgian pedophile and alleged murderer Marc Dutroux is still awaiting trial 7 years after he was initially arrested? The only possible explanations that spring to mind are that this is either a symptom of extreme juridicial incompetence, or the result of intentional foot-dragging by officials who would rather that the man never be brought to trial. Of course, it could even be a combination of both factors, but whatever the real reasons for the extreme tardiness of justice may be, it all speaks extremely poorly of Belgium's legal system.

Panem et Circenses, or Japan Bashing as Therapy

The Chinese government has long found it convenient to play upon Japanese misdeeds in the earlier part of this century whenever a suitable occasion has arisen, conveniently ignoring the reality that no body of people has inflicted more suffering on the Chinese people over the last hundred years than those belonging to the Chinese Communist Party itself. Nevertheless, it appears that the Chinese populace can always be counted on to fall for the bait.

In the history of comical flops, few pranks can have gone down quite so badly as the fake-genital skit performed by three Japanese students in China's Northwest University.

Camping it up in red bras and knickers bulging with paper cups, the performers must have been expecting guffaws or at least shy giggles from the freshmen and faculty they were entertaining at a welcoming party for new students.

Instead, they sparked an anti-Japanese demonstration by thousands of fellow students, internet death threats, and articles in the national media accusing them of attempting to humiliate China and its people.

The outcry sparked by the innocuous display of student humour this week is the latest and most bizarre in a series of public demonstrations against anything Japanese - one of the few issues on which the Chinese government appears ready to tolerate large-scale protests.

According to the state-run news service Xinhua, the performance at the party for foreign language students in Xian, western China, included three Japanese students and a teacher wearing brassieres and false genitals made from paper cups hanging from their waists. They danced "obscenely" and threw scraps of paper pulled from their underwear at the audience.

The audience of conservative students and professors called a stop to the high jinks. If the performers had been Chinese, Russian or European, that would probably have been the end of the matter. But the fact that they were Japanese turned a cultural misunderstanding into an international incident.

Several thousand Chinese students gathered in front of the university's foreign students' dormitory on Thursday to demand that the Japanese offenders apologise. Yesterday hundreds continued to protest, shouting anti-Japanese slogans and waving banners, according to witnesses.

Officially sanctioned Japan-bashing serves the same purpose in China as anti-Americanism and antisemitism do in the Middle East: they give the population an easy out for all the frustrations they experience in their daily lives, while sparing both the populace and the authorities who misrule them the burden of undergoing any real introspection as to the true sources of their difficulties. The Japan of today is about as different a society from that of the pre-war era as it is possible to get, and the Japanese are even more averse to the use of force in international relations than the Germans are. To pretend that every faux-pas the Japanese make must be a sign of ill-will, as the Chinese love to do, is nothing more than an outrageous self-deception, and one which I suspect those engaging in it must themselves be aware of at some level - hence the outsized histrionics. Methinks the Chinese doth protest a tad too much to be entirely genuine in their outrage.

TIME - Joe Klein - How the Unions Killed a Dream

How can anyone read this and tell me that Democratic Party opposition to any meaningful educational reform (by which I mean something other than just spending more money), let alone school choice, has anything to do with principle? The teachers' unions are perfectly willing to obstruct any initiative that offers inner-city children a chance of escaping from their clutches, if it threatens in any way "the critical mass of students who remained in our traditional schools," Since when have schoolchildren become mere resources like uranium, to be spoken about in terms of "critical mass" and so forth? That is what it all comes down to in the end, students as mere means for the creation of well paying teachers' jobs, rather than as ends in themselves to be served by the educational system.

In 1999, an unassuming Michigan road builder named Bob Thompson sold his construction company for $442 million, an amount he and his wife Ellen believed was far more than they needed for retirement. His first act, which received national attention, was to distribute $128 million to his employees; about 80 became instant millionaires. Then Thompson decided to donate most of the rest of his money to public education, preferably in Detroit. After doing some research, he offered $200 million to build 15 small, independent public high schools in the inner city. A few weeks ago, Thompson withdrew his offer after the Detroit Federation of Teachers (DFT) led a furious, and scurrilous, campaign against his generosity. The philanthropist is in seclusion now—friends say he is stunned and distressed—but his is a story that deserves telling.

Thompson's research led him to Doug Ross, founder of University Preparatory Academy in Detroit. Ross is a prominent New Democrat policy wonk who served in Bill Clinton's Labor Department, then went home to Michigan and ran unsuccessfully for Governor in 1998. "I learned during the campaign there was one overpowering issue for inner-city parents: to get their kids a college education," Ross told me. "I was tired of theoretical policy junk; I wanted to do something that really mattered. It was clear that urban kids were not responding to the industrial-age assembly-line education model—and there were people around the country who had figured out how to educate kids in a more humane, customized way."

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

Ross decided to tackle the toughest education problem: middle school. He started in 2000 with 112 sixth-graders and has added a new grade each year. He had been in business two years when Thompson came to visit. "I had him sit in on some classes," Ross says. "He liked what he saw and asked how he could help. I asked him to build me a high school. He said he'd build one to my specifications and lease it to me for $1 per year—but there had to be accountability. How would he know if I was succeeding or not? I told him my goals—a 90% graduation rate and 90% of graduates going on to college. If I didn't meet those bench marks after three graduating classes, he could take the school away and let someone else give it a try."

This was, essentially, the deal that Thompson offered Detroit. He didn't specify curriculum or who should run the 15 independent charter schools. Theoretically, any organization—including the teachers' union—was eligible to propose its own system if it presented a plausible plan for a 500-student campus and agreed to Thompson's 90-90 yardstick. New state legislation would be needed to establish the schools. But both Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and Governor Jennifer Granholm were thrilled by Thompson's offer—at least until the Detroit Federation of Teachers made plain its opposition. On Sept. 25 the DFT held a work stoppage, which closed the public schools, and staged a rally at the state capitol in Lansing. The mayor withdrew his support, and Thompson withdrew his offer soon after.

"The Thompson schools would devastate the critical mass of students who remained in our traditional schools," Janna Garrison, president of the DFT, told me last week. She was referring to the $7,100 per pupil that would travel with each student who chose to go to a charter school (although the state offered the Detroit schools $15 million to compensate for the lost funds). This is a familiar union song—similar to the argument against school vouchers—that grows less powerful as urban schools grow worse. The fact that charter-school teachers in Detroit are not union members probably had something to do with the union's stand too (Ross said he would accept a union if his teachers wanted one). But Garrison took the argument a step further: "If someone from the outside came to Bob Thompson's suburban town and said, ‘I'm gonna give you a lot of money for education, but we spend it my way,' they just wouldn't tolerate it."

This was thinly veiled racial politics. "You've got a lot of poison in the air," Mayor Kilpatrick told me. "People here are sensitive about white people bossing them around." Kilpatrick insisted he wasn't opposed to more charter schools; his own children go to one. And he was not pleased by the union's role, even though he's a former teacher. "The teachers' union once was a progressive force, but that day has passed," he says. "And it's not coming back until the union realizes that we're going to have to make dramatic changes to improve education here." (emphasis added)

The nicest touch is the way in which Kilpatrick manages to reach for the race card in lieu of a real argument, when the truth of the matter is that he and the unions he supports are doing more than anyone else to keep black and Hispanic children in inferior schools. It's a neat trick to use accusations of racism to defend a racially inequitable status quo.

Guardian Unlimited Politics | Comment | The real Putin

You know Putin's in serious trouble when even the editorial staff of the Guardian, that scourge of capitalist exploiters everywhere, finds his actions difficult to stomach:

Who does Vladimir Putin think he is? Is he the autocratic former KGB man or the would-be reformer and liberaliser of Russia? Is he the westward leaning ally of President Bush and Tony Blair, or someone whose real affection is for the bad old days of the Soviet Union? In the aftermath of the Yukos affair and the arrest of Russia's richest man, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the question needs answering. Now is crunch-time for Mr Putin. He must decide who he wants to be.

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

Madeleine Albright, the former US Secretary of State, has said of Mr Putin that he has 'two distinct strands' to his personality and political ambitions. A harsher assessment is that the more authoritarian strand has always triumphed and that the reformist side shown to the likes of Tony Blair and George Bush is just a plausible front displayed by an effective spy. On the evidence of last week, the real Mr Putin is that of the brutal Chechen war, a man who greeted the sinking of the Kursk without emotion, and who has kept a stranglehold on Russia's media freedoms.

Mr Putin can no longer have it both ways. His arrest of the one remaining oligarch to retain political ambitions, and democratic ones at that, presents a challenge to countries such as the US and the UK which have received and feted him as a reformer while quietly ignoring his troops' excesses in Chechnya. If Mr Putin opts for the authoritarian path, then it is time for London and Washington to reassess relations.

Saturday, November 01, 2003

Russia is a Lawless Country

This depressing New York Times article confirms my view that Russia is a country where due process is no more than a fiction.

OSCOW, Oct. 31 — Anton V. Drel arrived at the grim Mastrosskaya Tishina prison here last Saturday and signed the papers declaring him the official counsel of Mikhail B. Khodorkovsky, Russia's richest tycoon. Then a prosecutor presented Mr. Drel with a summons to be questioned as a witness.

"Even in the Soviet Union, that never happened," he said.

The jailhouse summons, which prompted an outcry from Russia's bar, was the latest in a series of aggressive and, lawyers say, illegal tactics in an investigation lasting months into Mr. Khodorkovsky and others connected with his company, Yukos Oil.

Whether Mr. Khodorkovsky is guilty of the fraud and forgery alleged by prosecutors is much debated here and abroad, particularly given the murky nature of most big business in Russia. The real question, however, is whether he has any chance of due process or, should it ever come to it, a fair and open trial.

Few here believe he does — even the deputy chairman of President Vladimir V. Putin's advisory committee on the judiciary, Sergei E. Vitsin. "I would say there are more features of political games here than of justice," he said in an interview.

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

Masked agents seized Mr. Khodorkovsky on a Siberian runway last Saturday after prosecutors accused him of ignoring a summons that, Mr. Drel said, he never received. His partner, Platon Lebedev, has been in jail since July and has not yet appeared in an open court hearing. He, like Mr. Khodorkovsky, has been ordered held until at least Dec. 30.

Agents of the Federal Security Service, the domestic successor to the K.G.B., even appeared at the public school of Mr. Khodorkovsky's daughter, demanding a list of her classmates. Mr. Drel called the visit a naked act of intimidation.

On Oct. 9, investigators raided Mr. Drel's own law office — without a warrant and without his presence, he said — and seized his mobile phone, electronic notebook and files involving business deals with international companies. As for the summons, Mr. Drel refused to appear as ordered. After the public outcry, the prosecutors withdrew it.

"Some dangerous precedents are being created in this case," Mr. Drel said in an interview this week at Yukos's headquarters in Moscow. "If this is the way they treat the richest and one of the most influential men in Russia, then they can confiscate an apartment or a kiosk from any small-rent trader," he said. "And if they treat the lawyer of the richest man in Russia like this, how will they treat ordinary lawyers in, say, small Siberian towns who represent ordinary businessmen?" (emphasis added)

When you have agents of the state going to harass a man's daughter at her school, you know you're dealing with a thugocracy. Everything Putin has said and done in his time in office leads me to believe that he is nothing more than a power-hungry thug. He speaks like a thug, being ever ready to spew forth vulgarities, and he certainly acts like one, be it in Chechnya or in his dealings with the Russian press and opposition.

Putin is willing to frighten away potential investors and encourage capital flight from a country that had been seeming on the mend, all for what, exactly? All the indications were that Khodorkovsky posed no real threat to him politically in the upcoming elections, so just what is to be achieved at such a horrendous cost? The whole thing only makes sense if one regards Putin as a man so afraid of the slightest opposition, and so unwilling to allow alternative centres of power to exist in Russian life, that he is determined to do whatever he can to ensure that he and his allies alone have a voice, whatever the price the rest of Russia must pay.