Saturday, September 29, 2007
Thursday, September 27, 2007
I don't think we're in Napa anymore, Toto.
Sunday, September 23, 2007
Saturday, September 22, 2007
Masters of the Universe.
Central bankers are an odd breed, somewhere between an international trade union and a fraternal masonic order, intimidating outsiders through a carefully inculcated awe of their unfathomable power and, notwithstanding recent disagreements on dealing with market turbulence, a powerful internal solidarity. Jean-Claude Trichet, now president of the European -Central Bank, was once asked for his view of a frankly eccentric plan by the Bank of Japan to start buying equities to boost the stagnant Japanese economy. "We form a mutual admiration society," he told a gaggle of bemused journalists, tongue imperviously lodged in Gallic cheek, "so whatever the Bank of Japan suggests is necessarily the best way of doing it."
They would regard themselves as something like the Jedi Council - an ascetic elite who, through innate wisdom and arduous training, are entrusted with maintaining order in a galaxy permanently threatened by the dark, swirling chaos of price instability. In reality, as Greenspan makes clear, there is a good element of the Wizard of Oz. The darkest secret of central bankers is that they are generally working from the same data as everyone else.
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
The Belgian cocktail.
Monday, September 17, 2007
A certain kind of pain.
Saturday, September 15, 2007
Coming soon to classier bookstores near you.
How to turn a red state purple.
At the behest of the White House, which made accelerated oil and gas leasing the top priority of the Bureau of Land Management, the gas industry has in the past five years transformed huge tracts of an iconic Western landscape into something resembling industrial zones. As Coloradoans struggle to adjust to the changes -- a steady flow of heavy rigs on back roads, powerful odors from evaporation ponds and a small army of roughnecks gobbling methamphetamine to work 12-hour shifts -- disquiet grows over federal plans to open the spigot wider yet.Washington Post.
News from all over.
Hindu nationalists have forced the Indian government to put on hold plans to dredge the Palk Strait be-tween Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka, saying the project would obliterate the submerged vestiges of an ancient bridge built by the Hindu god Ram and his army of monkeys. . . .Financial Times.
The Ram Setu (Ram's Bridge), a chain of shoals between the two countries, is one of Hinduism's holiest sites. The Ramayana, a holy epic, describes how Lord Ram commanded his monkeys to build a bridge to Sri Lanka thousands of years ago so he could rescue his kidnapped wife, Sita. Hindu groups say the limestone shoals between Dhanushkodi in Tamil Nadu and Mannar in Sri Lanka are the remains of that construction.
... [T]he government had argued that mythological texts could not "incontrovertibly prove the existence of the characters or the occurrence of the events depicted therein"and said researchers had found the "bridge" was nothing more than the product of centuries of sedimentation.
L.K. Advani, a Bharatiya Janata party leader, said the government had "poured contempt on the religious sentiments of tens of millions of Hindus". Narendra Modi, the BJP chief minister of Gujarat, who faces elections this year, said: "We will not allow the dredging of Ram Setu for as long as there exists a drop of blood in us."
Thousands of Hindus protested in several Indian states on Wednesday. Pravin Togadia of the World Hindu Council accused the government of "appeasing Muslims by hurting Hindu sentiments". He warned that "even the strongest drills" would break when applied to Ram Setu's foundations.
The project, called the Sethusamudram Ship Canal, would have carved a navigable sea route around India and lop a day off the journey time for cargo ships that need to loop round the southern tip of Sri Lanka.
The celluloid princess.
Tuesday, September 11, 2007
George Saunders and David Letterman.
Wednesday, September 05, 2007
Greek tragedy for the new millenium.
Show creator David Simon talks with author Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, etc.) in the The August 2007 issue of The Believer. The entire interview isn't available online but one of the three best bits is:
My standard for verisimilitude is simple and I came to it when I started to write prose narrative: fuck the average reader. I was always told to write for the average reader in my newspaper life. The average reader, as they meant it, was some suburban white subscriber with two-point-whatever kids and three-point-whatever cars and a dog and a cat and lawn furniture. He knows nothing and he needs everything explained to him right away, so that exposition becomes this incredible, story-killing burden. Fuck him. Fuck him to hell.
Simon goes on to talk about the overarching theme of The Wire: the exploration of the postmodern American city and the struggle of the individual against the city's institutions. Many of his thoughts on that particular subject are contained in this Dec 2006 interview at Slate. But in talking with Hornby, Simon draws a parallel between these city institutions and the Greek gods:
Another reason the show may feel different than a lot of television: our model is not quite so Shakespearian as other high-end HBO fare. The Sopranos and Deadwood -- two shows that I do admire -- offer a good deal of Macbeth or Richard III or Hamlet in their focus on the angst and machinations of their central characters (Tony Soprano, Al Swearingen). Much of our modern theatre seems rooted in the Shakespearian discovery of the modern mind. We're stealing instead from an earlier, less-traveled construct -- the Greeks -- lifting our thematic stance wholesale from Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides to create doomed and fated protagonists who confront a rigged game and their own mortality.
But instead of the old gods, The Wire is a Greek tragedy in which the postmodern institutions are the Olympian forces. It's the police department, or the drug economy, or the political structures, or the school administration, or the macroeconomics forces that are throwing the lightning bolts and hitting people in the ass for no reason. In much of television, and in a good deal of our stage drama, individuals are often portrayed as rising above institutions to achieve catharsis. In this drama, the institutions always prove larger, and those characters with hubris enough to challenge the postmodern construct of American empire are invariably mocked, marginalized, or crushed. Greek tragedy for the new millenium, so to speak.
Tuesday, September 04, 2007
Fish in a barrel.
In February 2006, the conservative journal Policy Review published an essay that was shockingly heretical, though perhaps unintentionally so. In it, Carles Boix of the University of Chicago argued that there is a link between democracy and economic equality:In an unequal society, the majority resents its diminished status. It harbors the expectation of employing elections to drastically overturn its condition. In turn, the wealthy minority fears the outcome that may follow from free elections and the assertion of majority rule. As a result, it resorts to authoritarian institutions to guarantee its social and economic advantage.
Of the many taboos that prevail among conservatives, the one forbidding any serious discussion of inequality is perhaps the strictest. Any forthright examination of this topic will lead one quickly to the realization that American society has been spreading apart rapidly for three decades and that Republican economic policies have without a doubt contributed mightily to this gulf. So conservatives usually ignore the subject of inequality, except perhaps to minimize its scale or importance.
Why, then, did Policy Review, which is published by the staunchly conservative Hoover Institution, open its pages to such apostasy? Well, it didn't intend to. Boix's essay (which was brilliant and widely discussed) concerned the inculcation of democracy abroad and did not deal directly with the United States. And the circumstances Boix envisioned--mainly, developing countries attempting a transition to democracy--are different from those in an advanced democracy. Americans, fortunately, do not have to worry about kleptocrats, political violence, and massive vote fraud.
But, while Boix's theory may be less applicable to the United States than it is to the Third World, it is still somewhat true. Indeed, this theory offers an uncannily precise description of what has happened in American politics over the last 30 years. The business lobbyists have turned the Republican Party into a kind of machine dedicated unwaveringly to protecting and expanding the wealth of the very rich. As it has pursued this goal ever more single-mindedly, the right has by necessity grown ever more hostile to majoritarian decision-making for the obvious reason that it's hard to enlist the public behind an agenda designed to benefit a tiny minority. The old ways of conducting politics have broken down in the face of this onslaught. The mores of the old Washington establishment--the assumption of some basic intellectual goodwill on both sides, the focus on character over substance, the belief in compromise--all developed during an era when there were few ideological differences between the parties. The old ways may have done a decent job of safeguarding the national interest when the great moderate consensus prevailed, but they have proven unequal to the challenge of a more ideological time.
All this has happened at the same time as a massive increase in income inequality, which is exactly what Boix's theory would predict. In the same essay, Boix marvels at the fortunes amassed by autocratic ruling elites throughout history:Rulers such as the Bourbons, the Tudors, or the Sauds seize an important part of their subjects' assets. For example, at the death of Augustus (14 a.d.), the top 1/10,000 of the Roman Empire's households received 1 percent of all income. In Mughal India around 1600 a.d., the top 1/10,000th received 5 percent of all income.
Presumably, readers looking at these numbers are supposed to gape in astonishment at the sheer inequity of those autocratic regimes. But the numbers are less astonishing when you compare them to those in the contemporary United States, which Boix does not. As of 2004, the top one-ten-thousandth of Americans earned over 3 percent of the national income--a somewhat smaller share than that earned by the Mughal elite but several times higher than that enjoyed by the wealthiest Romans.
Meanwhile, the gap between Americans and Mughals is closing rapidly. Since the late '70s, the share of national income going to the top 1 percent has doubled. The share of the top 0.1 percent has tripled, and the share of the top 0.01 percent has quadrupled. This gulf was widened precisely at the same time that the right, growing ever more plutocratic and suspicious of popular demands, was battering away at the culture of American democracy. Many people have looked at the depredations of the Bush era--the bizarre cult of personality, the anti-intellectual demagoguery, the incessant flouting of norms, the prostrate media--as the product of the president's character, or Karl Rove's machinations. But it is, in the main, the consequence of a cult-like fringe taking control of a political party and using it to wage class warfare on behalf of a tiny minority.
Chait argues that in developing and preaching the gospel of supply-side economics, the ideas of Gilder and Wanniski have been devastatingly influential and pernicious. Considering their work as a form of intellectual history doesn't seem right though, since on Chait's account it's not clear that they have been persuasive so much as incredibly convenient for those -- the richest -- devoted to lower taxes. The real action within the GOP has been the competition for funding, not hearts and minds. Maybe that's not fair: Chait suggests that the seminal supply-side moment was Laffer's famous napkin, but he concurs that this trick wasn't convincing so much as effective. Supply-siders have never needed to convince skeptics, they've just needed enough of intellectual patina to gain entry into the public discourse. On this view, Gilder and Wanniski are less like the leaders of a cult, and more like ad men. No really believes that McDonalds sells healthy food, either, but the advertising creates a good impression and they sell lots of burgers and fries.
A different sort of revolution.
Not only does North Korea appear to be becoming more dependent on conventional exports but it is more and more reliant on just two countries: China and South Korea. The nature of economic integration with its two neighbours is, however, markedly different. "Enterprises from communist China appear to be behaving like capitalists, while capitalist South Korea is using economic integration like a socialist tool of foreign policy," says Mr Noland. "North Koreans are more likely to learn about the functioning of a market economy through the Chinese than from the South Koreans."
Beijing's approach to Pyongyang is shifting from aid to trade - it is now the North's largest trading partner. Commodity-hungry China is swapping second-hand goods such as televisions and bicycles for access to North Korea's mineral resources.
Unlike South Korean enterprises such as Hyundai Asan, which has endured massive losses but continues operating in North Korea out of concern for its people, Chinese companies simply pull out if they cannot make money. One regular visitor to Pyongyang tells the FT that he frequently hears reports of disinvestment as Chinese companies become frustrated with problems such as a lack of transport links to mines and barriers to expatriating profits.
At the insistence of China, its largest benefactor, North Korea reluctantly embarked on tentative economic reforms in 2002 by liberalising some prices and wages. There have since been smaller changes - for example, finance ministry officials told visiting western diplomats that markets, permitted as a temporary solution to food shortages - would now be allowed permanently. Mr Haggard and Mr Noland conclude that Chinese engagement is having a transformative effect but that South Korea's is not.
. . . South Korea seems to have lost sight of its goal of bringing about change in the North, analysts say. Instead it is simply concerned with preventing a catastrophic collapse - lavishing North Korea with aid, goods and even cash without conditions, in order to keep its neighbour afloat.
Anna Fifield, "Destination Pyongyang," Financial Times 9 (Sep. 4, 2007).
"Iraq doesn't exist as a state anymore."
TOM FOREMAN, CNN ANCHOR, THIS WEEK AT WAR: Nir, let me start with you. Who is running the show in Baghdad? Or is anyone?Via Steve Clemons.
NIR ROSEN, NEW AMERICA FOUNDATION: Well it depends where you are. As it has been since April 9, 2003, when Baghdad fell to the Americans, militias have been running the show. Whoever has power in the given neighborhoods, whatever local warlord, he's the one running the show. The government is basically a theater. Whatever happens in the green zone doesn't matter. It's always been militia leaders, political leaders at the party level who control the various militias and the ministers, not the prime minister and not the Americans, certainly. it is various militias.
FOREMAN: Nir, based on what you are saying though the problem is there is no credible alternative is there?
ROSEN: There is no government to begin with. It's a collection of militias. And indeed, there is no alternative. The whole focus on the government in Baghdad is the -- problem is that -- in everybody's approach. In Iraq it used to be you could have a coup replace the government and the whole country followed. But now Iraqi is a collection of city states, Baghdad, Tikrit, Kirkuk, Mosul, Basra, Erbil, each one with its own warlords. They don't answer to Baghdad. Baghdad has no control over them. When we overthrew Saddam, we imposed one dictator after another. We didn't like Prime Minister Jaafari so we got rid of him and we put in his close ally, Maliki. And now the occupier is once again upset that the occupied people are not being sufficiently obedient. But it doesn't matter. We are past that stage. Iraq doesn't exist as a state anymore. The government has never existed. It has never brought in any services. Even the most fundamental service the government can provide, a monopoly over the use of violence, it doesn't provide that because it has never controlled the militias and militias are the ones that control the police and the army.
FOREMAN: So Nir, we keep hearing reports, though, nonetheless out of Baghdad. People saying that give us time, we are trying to get this government worked out. We are going to make some progress. Do you see any way that can happen?
ROSEN: No. This has been the case for the past would two years at least. There is no hope. There is no government. Neither side is interested in compromise and why should they? The Shias control Baghdad. They have removed the Sunnis from Baghdad, from Iraq's political future.
FOREMAN: What's going to change that if anything?
ROSEN: Nothing is going to change that. The Shias have actually expelled most of the Sunnis from Baghdad. It went from being a majority Sunni city. Now it is a majority Shia city. The last few pockets of Sunnis are slowly being purged by the police and the Mehdi army. It's now irrevocably a Shia city and Sunnis are just out. Unfortunately, Iraq has been completely remade and it is time to be honest. It is time for the American leaders to be honest and American military to be honest with their people.
There can be no reconciliation. This does -- the latest show we had a few days ago where they brought a few leaders together and pretended like they were going to reconcile, the Sunnis are still out of the government and they remain so and why should they be? They have been expelled from Iraq. The majority of the three million refugees that we have from the region, from Iraq are Sunni. The majority being internally displaced are Sunni. Of course, whatever agreement were to be reached, parliament would never ratify it anyway.
Saturday, September 01, 2007
I wish I knew who to credit for this -- it's very well done.
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