Saturday, December 31, 2005

Closing the year on a good note

It seems wrong to end the year with a post on the ten worst Americans - so let me close out the year on the blog by highlighting three people who I know and respect. All of them have written something constructive about Iraq in the past week:

1) Andrew Erdmann -- about whom I've blogged in the past -- had an op-ed in the New York Times earlier in the week on Iraq's parliamentary elections:
For better or worse, in the election's aftermath, the United States will almost certainly begin to withdraw its military from Iraq in 2006. But that does not mean that the time has come to disengage. On the contrary, a broader, more diverse engagement with Iraqi society is needed to help Iraqis develop the institutions, practices and values essential to real and enduring democracy....

Iraq's universities and colleges are unable to train sufficient numbers of professors or schoolteachers to educate the next generation. Today, Iraq's 20 public universities and more than 40 technical colleges and institutes struggle to educate more than 250,000 students annually. Hundreds of millions of dollars are needed to build the system back up to where it was before Saddam Hussein took power; billions will be needed to meet today's regional standard, set by countries like Qatar.

How can we help build a better Iraq unless we focus on its vast population of young people, whose views of their country and its politics have yet to harden into dogma? But despite higher education's strategic importance, American support for it has been paltry. From 2003 to 2005, a United States Agency for International Development program allocated $20 million to building partnerships between American and Iraqi universities. That program ended without a successor; no agency funds are allocated for Iraqi higher education for 2006. The American Embassy in Baghdad backed the founding of an American University in Iraq in Sulaimaniya, but future support is uncertain....

We should expand "train and equip" programs for Iraqi editors, journalists, and publishers. We should also increase financing for the National Endowment for Democracy, the United States Institute of Peace and other organizations that are helping Iraqis build and sustain civic institutions. Such investments cannot be postponed and must not be considered merely "supplemental." We need to lock them into our budgets today.

But the United States government should not carry the load alone. Americans of all types - including educators, management consultants and municipal officials - can contribute and need to step forward. More organizations should follow the lead of Columbia University's Center for International Conflict Resolution, which works with civic leaders in regions of Iraq that are relatively peaceful. American trade unions, professional associations, educational institutions, journalists, students, human rights activists, scientists and business executives should establish ties with their Iraqi counterparts.

So far, many Americans who opposed the war have not extended a helping hand to the Iraqi people in its aftermath. Others sit on the fence. With elections under a new Constitution, the time has come to focus on Iraq's future and put aside the politics of the past.

2) A few years ago I was fortunate to have an office next door to Major Scott Cooper of the U.S. Marine Corps (we were both Council on Foreign Relations fellows). Cooper represents the best the Marines have to offer. On Christmas Day, Washington Post columnist Jim Hoagland relayed a long e-mail Cooper sent to him about how he views Iraq:
"The insurgents are not winning the overall struggle here," even if the United States has been unable to prevail militarily in the Sunni heartland, where Cooper is based. "They have not been able to extend the rebellion beyond the Sunni population. More than three-quarters of the Iraqi population are not engaged in the insurgency. In fact, they actively oppose it.

"And al Qaeda is losing the larger war on terrorism. Its immediate goal was to topple Muslim regimes in the Middle East who were friendly to the United States. No Muslim regime has fallen. A number of Arab countries and Pakistan have extended their cooperation to eliminate al Qaeda," he continues.

"We must define success by the changed behavior that is occurring in the region and by the fact that Iraq is no longer a threat to the region or the world. As a member of a weary military, I can attest that there are considerable sacrifices involved in all these endeavors. But if we are realistic about our goals, we can accomplish them."....

The aviator is hardly oblivious to Iraq's sectarian divisions, its culture of violence and long degradation under Saddam Hussein: "Iraq continues to be a collectivity of separate families and clans. A seeming lack of concern for the future by many Iraqis is the most troublesome quality we encounter. There is a puzzling indifference to what we are doing and even to what their new political leaders are doing."

Modest and practical, Scott Cooper would be the first to say that his views are personal, limited and subject to evolution. But this Marine's experiences over and at Al Asad have given him an unusual opportunity to understand that change in Iraq is both difficult -- and possible.

3) Former student Paul Staniland has an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times on the best way to stanch the flow of foreign insurgents into Iraq:
President Bush's "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq" focuses on the need to stop foreign fighters from coming into Iraq through neighboring countries, especially Syria. However, current U.S. policies have not halted this flow of insurgents, weapons and money. Unless the United States and its Iraqi allies can seal the border with Syria, enduring peace will not come to Iraq....

Instead of relying on either Syrian cooperation or sporadic offensives in Al Anbar province, American and Iraqi forces need to establish real control along the border. This solution seems obvious, but it is often overlooked in favor of more dramatic policies, such as military invasions and coercive diplomacy. However, France, India, Israel, Morocco and Turkey have all successfully used border defenses to neutralize transnational insurgents....

The Iraqi border with Syria is a good candidate for a barrier. The terrain allows for easier patrol and surveillance than in Kashmir, and, unlike Israel, the border is internationally recognized as legitimate.

Sealing the entire border with a wall patrolled by troops would be ideal, but even just fencing off the most commonly used areas of infiltration, including along the Tigris-Euphrates river basin, would help.

Iraqi troops could perform basic tasks such as patrolling and maintenance, while the American military handled high-tech surveillance and pursued infiltrators. Well-guarded border crossings would allow international commerce to continue while also providing an opportunity to keep track of who is entering and exiting the country.

Sealing the Iraqi border would certainly be costly. But the expense in both blood and treasure is negligible compared to the alternatives.

Read all three pieces -- combined, their advice point the way towards a sober but hopeful picture of Iraq.

posted by Dan at 02:42 PM | Comments (9) | Trackbacks (0)

The ten worst Americans

So I see there's a meme going around the blogosphere on the "10 worst Americans." This seems as fitting a top 10 list as any to end the year. It was worth perusing some of the other lists, as they refreshed my historical memory a bit. That said, here's my list, without comment, in alphabetical order.

UPDATE: OK, two quick comments. First, I added Ames to Angleton because I was blanking on the former's name when I first put this together. They are perfect döppelgangers, however.

Second, I do find it interesting that the majority of my names come from the Cold War era.

Aldrich Ames/James Jesus Angleton
Theodore Bilbo
John Wilkes Booth
Aaron Burr
Nathan Bedford Forrest
J. Edgar Hoover
Charles Manson
Joseph McCarthy
Richard M. Nixon
Al Sharpton
Readers are heartily encouraged to amend, revise or propose their own lists.

posted by Dan at 08:20 AM | Comments (43) | Trackbacks (0)

Friday, December 30, 2005

The greatest quote whore who ever lived

In the University of Chicago Alumni magazine, Amy M. Braverman has an excellent profile of Robert Thompson, Syracuse’s trustee professor of radio, television, and film in the S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and founding director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television.

Thompson is better known as being the best quote whore in the business -- seriously, the could be asked to comment on wallpaper paste -- or That 70's Show -- and he'd come up with something worth putting in the first two paragraphs of a story.

What Braverman reveals, however, is that Thompson devotes considerable time and effort to hone this skill:

[A] large portion of his day is devoted to talking with reporters. Most mornings, after waking up at 5:30 to read a novel (favorite authors include Don DeLillo, Nicholson Baker, and Alison Lurie), he makes scheduled calls to a few radio shows. “If you’re a professor holding office hours,” he says, “you’ll talk to anyone who comes in. This is the same thing. If I have three calls—one from the student newspaper, one from the New York Times, and one from CNN, I’ll return them in that order.” When big television events occur, he’s inundated. After the 2004 Super Bowl, for example, “Janet Jackson gets her blouse ripped off, and that killed Monday.” In fact, the Janet calls continued for two weeks. For that particular story, he considered it important “to get another voice out there.” Nobody else, he says, was discussing how the Super Bowl “has always been a raucous, rowdy broadcast with cameras lingering on cheerleaders and crass commercials. What are you going to worry about more—the breast flashing at 50 yards or the countless commercials about beer and the good life? To me there’s no question.”....

It’s time to return some calls. He’s already spoken today with an LA radio station about the JetBlue incident, the Syracuse Post Standard about Martha Stewart’s Apprentice, the Los Angeles Times about the Weather Channel changing format for big weather stories like Hurricane Katrina, and WPRO in Rhode Island about the new fall television season. Now he plays phone tag with NPR, which wants him to reflect on Bugs Bunny for an upcoming “great characters in cultural history” series. He gets hold of Sacramento Bee reporter Alison Roberts and discusses JetBlue. The next day he appears in her story:

But did the coverage unnecessarily alarm passengers?

“The mode of American journalism is hyperbole,” said Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University’s Center for the Study of Popular Television.

At the same time, the attention can also be reassuring, he added. “If CNN and Fox are on you—if you’re considered breaking news—then you figure somehow surely all that can be done is being done,” Thompson said.

The key to Thompson’s savvy is staying ahead of the game. “You hope that by the time a journalist calls you’ve already been thinking about it,” he says. The 60th anniversary of the webbed aluminum lawn chair, he offers as a nontelevision, pop-culture example, is approaching, so he read up. The chair is fascinating, he says, “because you had all this extra aluminum after the war,” and some enterprising folks thought to “take this surplus of aluminum and match it with the explosion of the suburbs, which was helped with the GI Bill.” It’s his favorite type of topic. “It’s fun to learn the contextual history of things you take for granted. The stuff is so totally a part of who you are and you fail to see the significance.”
The webbed aluminim lawn chair. Wow.

I humbly bow before the greatest quote whore who ever lived.

[Isn't there a price to be paid for this kind of slavish attention to media entreaties?--ed. I dunno. On the one hand, Thompson does seem to have an encyclopedic knowledge of his subject domain, thanks in no small part to his willingness to talk to the media. At the same time, attempting to render a two-sentence judgment on any media trend or phenomenon under the sun might carry a cost in terms of deeper thought -- a point Josh Korr makes here and here. Er, can't you say the same thing about bloggers?--ed. I'll leave that question for the comments.]

UPDATE: Thompson might be the most prolific quote whore ever, but I'm pretty sure Virginia Postrel will win the award for most profitable.

posted by Dan at 09:48 AM | Comments (10) | Trackbacks (0)

Thursday, December 29, 2005

What's wrong with this sentence?

Vincent J. Schodolski has a story in today's Chicago Tribune about the unothrodox sentences judges sometimes impose on defendants. Here's how it opens:

There is a song in Gilbert and Sullivan's light opera "The Mikado" in which the title character reveals that one of his goals is "to let the punishment fit the crime." It appears that a number of judges around the country share that objective.

In various jurisdictions and for various crimes, judges have ordered individuals to spend a night in the woods, act as a school crossing guard, stand along busy streets with signs around their necks proclaiming their misdeed and even watch a film about violent neo-Nazis, "American History X."

Some of the judges involved said that they imposed these sentences to make criminals better understand the harm they caused or could have caused.

This month, an Arkansas woman who passed a stopped school bus and struck and killed a child was sentenced to spend one day a year in jail for 10 consecutive years, with the date to coincide with the date on which the child died.

Am I the only one who believes that ten days in jail stretched out over ten years is an extraordinarily lenient sentence for vehicular manslaughter?

At first I thought this was an error in the Trib story -- but it's not:

Tiffany Nix, 25, was ordered to spend every September 28 through 2015 in jail for the 2004 death of 9-year-old William "Isaac" Brian.

Nix pleaded guilty Tuesday to manslaughter and passing a stopped school bus.

The judge ordered Nix to pay Isaac's family $5,694.62 for his funeral expenses. She will also be on probation for 10 years and must perform 400 hours of community service.

The boy's father, Kelly Brian, said after the hearing that he and his wife, Shari, were satisfied with the sentence.

Prosecutors had said Nix had opiates and amphetamines in her system at the time of the accident. She had initially been charged with negligent homicide, but prosecutors upgraded the charge after receiving results from laboratory tests.

In a written statement included in a police report, Nix said she saw the school bus but did not see its stop sign. She said she did not realize the bus was stopped until she saw the boy running in front of it.

Isaac's death prompted legislators to toughen penalties for passing stopped school buses.

As an aside, those tougher penalties don't seem to be working.

A question to the prosecutors in the audience -- given the circumstances, is this kind of jail time par for the course for a manslaughter conviction?

[Do you have any better ideas?--ed. Well, my wife, upon reading the story, had the instinctive reaction: "Put her in solitary for a few years, but on the date the child died release her into the general inmate population and tell everyone what she did." But you should see how responds if the kitchen is really messy.]

posted by Dan at 09:24 AM | Comments (23) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Adios, siesta

It is with a hard head but a heavy heart that I relay this Financial Times report from Leslie Crawford:

Spain’s Socialist government on Tuesday officially abolished the siesta, the extended lunch break.

A new law decrees that lunch breaks will be limited to one hour to allow civil servants to clock off at 6pm.

Jordi Sevilla, minister for public administration and a father of three, said the aims of the law were to put an end to the “chaotic hours” worked in the civil service and allow Spaniards to reconcile work and family life.

He said he hoped private sector companies would follow suit. “We are trying to set an example by rationalising the working hours of civil servants,” he said.

“Henceforth, lunchtime will be from 12 to 1pm, like the rest of Europe, instead of between 2 and 4pm. This will allow civil servants to leave work at six, instead of eight or nine in the evening.”

Mr Sevilla said he wanted civil servants to “achieve the same amount of work in less time”.

The Círculo de Empresarios, a business lobby group, said it thought Spain’s long lunches were an inefficient way to break up the day.

“This is costing the economy as much as 8 per cent of gross domestic product,” said Claudio Boada, its president.

Spain ranks 10th in the number of hours worked per year, although productivity lags far behind countries that work fewer hours....

Still, change will not be easy. “The lunch is the main way personal relationships are established,” says Alejandra Moore, a communications consultant.

“I cannot imagine achieving anything meaningful over a 45-minute lunch.”

While I suspect the 8% figure is an exaggeration, it seems hard to dispute the notion that the siesta is a thoroughly inefficient way of inserting break times into the working day. So the economist in me accepts this as wise policy.

At the same time, the Burkean conservative in me mourns a loss. The siesta is such a lovely conceit for lazy people like myself -- who have a strong belief in the restorative and stimulating powers of the long lunch -- that it will be hard to imagine its disappearance from its country of origin.

UPDATE: Tyler Cowen has more on the economics of napping.

posted by Dan at 10:51 AM | Comments (10) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

What are the lessons of Munich?

Encouraged by the positive reviews it has received from film critics, my wife and I went to see Munich today, and perhaps the most accurate thing I can say about it is that it is, in every way, a lesser movie than the one in Spielberg's prior oeurve it most resembles, Saving Private Ryan.


A movie based on or inspired by historical events is always judged on two levels -- the extent to which the film hews to historical accuracy, and the larger meaning that is derived from the current context through which the film is viewed. Munich fails pretty badly on the first point -- as Aaron J. Klein points out in Slate, "Munich is not a documentary. Indeed, it is full of distortions and flights of fancy that would make any Israeli intelligence officer blush." (Check out Klein's interview with NPR as well.) The idea that the Mossad relied exculsively on a private organization for its intelligence and logistics is pretty absurd. The biggest difference might be that the Mossad agents who engaged in the Munich response did not evince any of the moral qualms that Spielberg assigns to his assassination squad. Ironically, this is less of a problem with Saving Private Ryan, even though the main narrative of that film is complete fiction. It is through the journey of trying to find Ryan that the protagonists and the movie-watching audience is exposed to the abject brutality of war.

So, what is Spielberg's larger meaning? There's lots of evidence here. As Edward Rothstein points out in the New York Times:

"There's no peace at the end of this," warns Avner, the morally anguished Mossad assassin, as Steven Spielberg's new film, "Munich," draws to a close. And by "this" he means the targeted killings that Israel is said to have begun after 11 of its athletes were murdered at the 1972 Olympics by members of the Palestinian Black September offshoot of Fatah.

But Mr. Spielberg, in collaboration with his screenwriters, Eric Roth and the playwright Tony Kushner, also has a different "this" in mind. The camera pointedly settles on the period's skyline of lower Manhattan, showing the World Trade Center in sharp relief.

The warning and image are meant to suggest that militant attempts to destroy terrorism lead not to peace but to cycles of violence, and that the 9/11 attacks may even be consequences of Israel's response to the Munich massacre. A war on terror amplifies terror. Moreover, the movie teaches, opposing sides begin to resemble each other. Moral credibility is destroyed along with hope.

It's not just movie critics who have interpreted Munich in this way. Former Middle East envoy Dennis Ross, after viewing the film, said:
My reaction to it in some ways is less about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and more about the larger context of dealing with terror. In many ways this is a historical event. And for the Israelis and Palestinians, while it will move many, you look at the demographics of both peoples and you'll find this is ancient history for them. So, it doesn't have an immediate relevance for them per se, but it does have a relevance in terms of highlighting what happens when you're confronted with a horrific act of terror and you have to do something about it. My reaction to it from the beginning was much more about terror and the responses to terror, and much less about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

And I saw dilemmas built in here. And what I liked about it from the beginning, Steven came to me and wanted my reaction to this. And I told him, my reaction was much more related to this contextual relationship with what happened then, but what was relevant for today. And the fact that it's a movie that suggests that you have to respond - it's understandable that you respond - but when you respond, you're actually confronted with real dilemmas. And the choices are hard, and sometimes you pick the best of the bad alternatives. And it has an effect on the people who do it.

In the movie, Spielberg suggests two dilemmas with the Munich response. The first is that terrorizing the terrorists carries with it a moral and ethical price that cannot be easily dismissed (ironically, this is best demonstrated in the film not through any speech but through the last murder the team successfully carries out). The second is that the practical results of such an operation are counterproductive -- they merely encourage one's adversary to escalate its campaign of terror, and those involved in the mission succumb to the grip of paranoia.

The problem with Munich is that neither of these dilemmas is accurately portrayed. Practically, there is evidence that the gains of the campaign outweighed the costs. Klein says that, "The numbers show a steep slide in the frequency of terror attacks against Israelis and Israeli institutions abroad from 1974 to the present." That fact matters in any utilitarian calculation of these actions, but it is never mentioned in the film.

As for the moral dilemma, none of my fellow moviegoers bought the idea that the Israelis would develop any remorse or inner conflict over what they did, and the historical record bears them out. This doesn't mean that in a world of Abu Ghraibs, the question shouldn't be asked. But just as critics of recent wars have argued that what happened at Munich in 1938 is an imperfect metaphor for policy responses, what happened after the Munich tragedy of 1972 is a badly flawed metaphor for the ethical dilemmas we face today.

Ross gets it right when he says, "the choices are hard, and sometimes you pick the best of the bad alternatives." Not even Steven Spielberg, however, can turn that lesson into a compelling movie.

posted by Dan at 09:53 PM | Comments (10) | Trackbacks (0)

Why is Russia still a member of the G-8?

Both houses of the Russian legislature have passed a law (about which I have blogged before) that will impose formadible oversight and make it next to impossible for small or midsized NGOs to accept monety from Western donors.

Earlier this month The National Interest's Nikolas Gvosdev provided a weak defense of the proposed new law in the pages of the International Herald-Tribune:

[L]et's be honest - the crux of the matter lies with about 2,000 NGOs in Russia that deal with human rights and democracy issues, as well those groups unable or unlikely to get funding from Russian sources who rely on Western aid. And the proposed legislation is the clearest signal yet that Putin's vision for Russia - at least in the short term - is not liberal democracy but managed pluralism - a self-contained system where the Kremlin can set down red lines and can determine the amount of space different points of view will be allowed to occupy in the Russian political system. (Think Mexico in 1976 or Singapore under Lew Kuan Yew).

The preferred Western reaction - castigating Putin as a new Stalin and warning ominously about the KGB takeover of Russia - may make for wonderful copy but does little to ameliorate the situation. Nor were the comments of Lev Levinson of the Institute for Human Rights - that the government "cannot demand transparency from us" - particularly helpful. NGOs are not above the law, no matter how noble the cause....

It would be constructive to recognize that the Russian government has legitimate concerns - and to offer the benefit of the various North American and European approaches in terms of regulating nonprofit groups, defining what constitutes political activity, and establishing guidelines for how charitable contributions from abroad are processed.

The Russian government is free to reject that advice - but it will make the Western criticisms that follow much more legitimate. Our goal should not be bashing Putin or taking sides in Russia's political debates, but strengthening the long-term foundations for democracy.

I wonder what Gvosdev -- who also blogs -- would say about this Reuters report:
An outspoken aide to President Vladimir Putin resigned on Tuesday, saying he did not want to work for a state that had ended democracy and basic freedom.

Andrei Illarionov, who was stripped of many of his duties a year ago after he called the assault on oil company YUKOS "the scam of the year", was one of the few independent voices in an increasingly monolithic Kremlin establishment.

In potentially embarrassing remarks for Putin as Russia prepares to take over the presidency of the G8 club of free-market democracies on Sunday, he told reporters: "It is one thing to work in a country that is partly free. It is another thing when the political system has changed, and the country has stopped being free and democratic".

"I did not sign a contract with such a state, and therefore it is absolutely impossible to remain in this post." (emphasis added)

That bolded section raises an interesting point -- why is Russia still a member of the G-8?

It makes no sense from a liberal institutionalist perspective -- Russia has become less and less democratic over the past decade, and shows no sign under Vladimir Putin of trending in a constructive direction anytime soon.

It makes no sense from a realist pespective as well -- Russia is an economic lightweight with interests that diverge from the advanced industrialized nations in a number of areas. Russia so obviously does not belong in that grouping that it has never been allowed to participate in the most relevant G-7 grouping, that of the finance ministers.

Kicking Russia out of the G-8 would not necessarily accomplish a great deal -- it's not like Putin is suddenly going to smack himself on the forehead and say, "Gosh, you're right! I am monopolizing power within my country!" However, such a move would highlight the extent to which Russia has drifted away from the liberal democratic values it's government has lauded for fifteen years. It would not compromise any important component of U.S. foreign economic policy. And it might even revitalize a grouping that has been somewhat moribund during the Bush years.

UPDATE: Gvosdev responds in the comments -- and on his own blog.

posted by Dan at 09:34 AM | Comments (19) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, December 26, 2005

The reorganization of U.S. foreign aid

Over the past few weeks there have been a trickle of stories coming out about a reorganization of U.S. foreign aid policies.

For example, there's Caroline Daniel and Guy Dinmore's Financial Times piece from December 11th:

President George W. Bush on Wednesday announced that the State Department would lead all US post-conflict reconstruction, a move that supersedes the controversial decision to give that task to the Pentagon in Iraq following the 2003 invasion....

The presidential directive, issued this month but announced yesterday, will also reinforce the political power of the State Department’s office of reconstruction and stabilisation, with a mission to anticipate state failures, prevent conflict and lead the co-ordination of post-war efforts.

Carlos Pascual, the senior State Department official heading that office, said it was “important to get on paper” that the secretary of state would be in charge of future post-war reconstruction policies and planning.

The 2003 decision to hand control of the reconstruction to the Pentagon has been widely criticised and led to a degree of inter-agency friction. State Department experts who had planned for the post-war period were pushed aside by Pentagon officials, including defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who strongly resisted the notion of nation-building.

A former senior official involved in what he called the “chaos” of post-war reconstruction efforts in Iraq said yesterday’s announcement also affirmed the growing power and influence of Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state.

Then there's this write-up of an FT interview with outgoing USAID head Andrew Natsios:
The US Agency for International Development will unveil early next year a comprehensive strategy for improving democracy and governance in developing countries.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Andrew Natsios, the USAID administrator who steps down at the beginning of next year, said the democracy strategy was a key milestone in the re-orientation of US aid programmes to focus on issues of effective governance alongside traditional development projects

Mr Natsios also confirmed that the administration was drawing up proposals for a broader overhaul of the organisation of US foreign aid, but would not discuss details, saying some of the final decisions had yet to be made.

He said there were structural issues that needed to be addressed, in particular the fragmentation of responsibility for development programmes across different departments and agencies in the US government. “There are problems that need to be addressed for the protection of the president’s legacy on foreign aid.”

With the Bush administration’s commitment to spreading democracy and repairing failed states that might harbour terrorists, foreign aid has become an increasingly critical part of the overall US national security strategy. Since 2000, the US aid budget has doubled from $10bn to more than $20bn this year.

I'm not sure how far the Bush administation is going to get in its reorganization, but the proposals raise an interesting question -- should the primary focus of U.S. foreign aid be on reconstruction and democratization? One could argue that this leaves out a whole lot of other aims -- literacy, disease prevention, and economic development, for starters. One could also argue, however, that reconstruction and democratization are prerequisites for the other stated aims of foreign aid. One could also argue, however, that democratization is the result and not the cause of those other goals.

Whenever you have a chicken-egg problem like achieving multiple development goals, it strikes me as wrong-headed to put all of your resources in one half of the equation. If the administration's proposal is to create such a balance, fine with me. If the idea is to make reconstruction and democratization the sole aim of foreign aid, though, then I'm not sure it's such a hot idea.

One final bureaucratic thought. The attempt to create logistical capabilities for aid and reconstruction within the State Department would have a significant effect on the traditional rivalry between State and Defense. The latter has always had an edge in terms of capabilities and resources. If State develops its own parallel means to deliver man and material somewhere, one of DoD's unspoken advantages in bureaucratic politics will be dented just a little bit.

posted by Dan at 09:09 AM | Comments (3) | Trackbacks (0)

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Merry Christmas!! The streets are ours!!

Wonder what those of the Jewish persuasion do on Christmas day? Click here and watch the video to find out.

posted by Dan at 08:59 AM | Comments (1) | Trackbacks (0)

Worst tradecraft ever

John Crewdson has a front-pager in the Chicago Tribune on the extent to which the CIA left footprints in their rendition of an Egyptian-born Muslim cleric commonly known as Abu Omar. This exercise has led Italy to issue 22 arrest warrants for alleged CIA officers for what they did.

Without getting into the normative debate about whether such renditions are appropriate or not, Crewdson's story suggests that the CIA's tradecraft is so bad it couldn't smuggle a ham sandwich out of a foreign country without getting detected by local police. The lowlights:

The trick is known to just about every two-bit crook in the cellular age: If you don't want the cops to know where you are, take the battery out of your cell phone when it's not in use.

Had that trick been taught at the CIA's rural Virginia training school for covert operatives, the Bush administration might have avoided much of the current crisis in Europe over the practice the CIA calls "rendition," and CIA Director Porter Goss might not have ordered a sweeping review of the agency's field operations.

But when CIA operatives assembled here nearly three years ago to abduct an Egyptian-born Muslim preacher named Osama Moustafa Hassan Nasr, more familiarly known as Abu Omar, and "render" him to Cairo, they left their cell phone batteries in.

Even when not in use, a cell phone sends a periodic signal indicating its location, enabling the worldwide cellular network to know where to look for it in case of an incoming call.

Those signals allowed police investigating Abu Omar's mysterious disappearance to ultimately construct an almost minute-by-minute record of his abduction, and to identify nearly two dozen people as his abductors.

Aides use words such as "horrified" to describe Goss' reaction to the sloppiness of the Milan rendition, and the relative ease with which its details have been unearthed by the Italian police and the news media.

In response, Goss has ordered a "top-down" review of the agency's "tradecraft," as the nuts and bolts of the spy business is known.

So amateurish was the Milan rendition that the Italian lawyer for Robert Seldon Lady, whom prosecutors identify as the former CIA chief in Milan, says Lady's primary defense will be that he was too good a spy to have been involved with something so badly planned and carried out.

"I think Bob is too intelligent," the lawyer, Daria Pesce, said in an interview earlier this month....

Should the CIA decide to teach its trainees how not to conduct a covert operation, it could find few better examples than the Milan rendition.

The list of mistakes made here is long, but it begins with the operatives' indiscriminate use of their cell phones, not only to communicate with one another but with colleagues in the U.S. Consulate in Milan, in northern Virginia where the CIA has its headquarters, and in some cases even with the folks back home.

One of the CIA's paramilitary operators made at least four calls to what appear to be friends and family in Texas, court records show. Another made a personal call to Greece. A man whose passport claims he was born in Tennessee made nine apparently personal calls, including one to a stockbroker in Kentucky.

The Tennessee man also registered in two Milan hotels under his real name, prosecutors say. So did another operative, who also used his real home address and his wife's e-mail address. A few hours after the abduction, he used his cell phone to call home.

Although the Milan operatives frequently changed hotels, perhaps to keep from attracting the attention of the police, the changes only made it easier for the police to identify them later.

It is comforting, however, to know that the CIA agents lived high on the hog while screwing up this badly, as Crewdson points out in a sidebar:
Italian prosecutors wrote in court papers that the CIA spent "enormous amounts of money" during the six weeks it took the agency to figure out how to grab a 39-year-old Muslim preacher called Abu Omar off the streets of Milan, throw him into a van and drive him to the airport.

First to arrive in Milan was the surveillance team, and the hotels they chose were among the best Europe has to offer. Especially popular was the gilt-and-crystal Principe di Savoia, with acres of burnished wood paneling and plush carpets, where a single room costs $588 a night, a club sandwich goes for $28.75 and a Diet Coke adds another $9.35.

According to hotel records obtained by the Milan police investigating Abu Omar's disappearance, two CIA operatives managed to ring up more than $9,000 in room charges alone. The CIA's bill at the Principe for seven operatives came to $39,995, not counting meals, parking and other hotel services.

Another group of seven operatives spent $40,098 on room charges at the Westin Palace, a five-star hotel across the Piazza della Repubblica from the Principe, where a club sandwich is only $20.

A former CIA officer who has worked undercover abroad said those prices were "way over" the CIA's allowed rates for foreign travel....

In all, records show, the CIA paid 10 Milan hotels at least $158,000 in room charges....

Once Abu Omar was safely behind bars in Cairo, some of the operatives who had helped put him there split up into twos and threes and headed for luxury resort hotels in the Italian Alps, Tuscany and Venice.

Asked if there had been some operational or other official reason for the ultra-expensive hotels and side trips, the senior U.S. official shrugged. "They work hard," he said.

posted by Dan at 08:40 AM | Comments (4) | Trackbacks (0)

The University of Chicago flunks George W. Bush

The Chicago Tribune asked three economists linked to the University of Chicago -- Ed Snyder, Michael Mussa, and Austin Goolsbee -- to grade various aspects of the Bush administration's economic performance for the past calendar year. The results aren't pretty:

While conservative economists like Mussa and Snyder say the president's tax cuts and stimulus package helped lay the foundation for the current economic expansion, they tend to join [former Kerry advisor] Goolsbee in lamenting that the administration's lack of spending discipline is mortgaging the nation's future....

"When you grade students you grade what's on the paper," Mussa said. "It's not whether you really like the student. I'm not prepared to ignore the obvious facts."

Read the whole thing -- here's the report card in brief:


posted by Dan at 08:31 AM | Comments (8) | Trackbacks (0)

A new front in the war on terror?

The global war on terror has many fronts -- including, apparently, the pages of the January 2006 issue of GQ magazine:

The person you see above is Wafah bin Ladin Dufour, the subject of a GQ story by George Gurley entitled, "It Isn't Easy Being the Sexy Bin Laden." From the article:
On a hot August afternoon, aspiring pop star Wafah Dufour walks into the media lunch hub Michael’s, in Midtown Manhattan. Accompanied by her publicist, Richard Valvo, the slender, exotic young woman with long dark hair in a high ponytail à la I Dream of Jeannie is dressed in a white tank top, green love beads, lacy miniskirt, and backless pumps. Conversations continue as heads look up to check her out.

Ms. Dufour passes by Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief of Vogue, who is lunching with designer Isaac Mizrahi, then stops at the next table to meet former Sony Music chairman Tommy Mottola and NBC head Jeff Zucker.

“You know Wafah bin Ladin?” Valvo asks the men loudly.

“Wafah Dufour,” she snaps, shooting him a look that’s more pleading than hostile.

Lest you think this is some attempt at a put-up job by a deep cover Al Qaeda agent, Gurley provides some additional info:
She has no contact with most of her relatives, including her father, doesn’t speak Arabic, has an American passport… The list goes on. “At the end of the day, I believe that the American people understand things and they have compassion and they see what’s fair,” she says. “They’re very fair, and that’s why I love America, and that’s why my mom loves America.”
The entire staff here at wishes Ms. Dufour the best of luck in all of her endeavours -- and we hope in particular that word reaches her notorious uncle. As Reuters reports, "Asked how he would react to her posing for racy pictures in a glossy magazine, she said, 'I think he would have a heart attack.'"

posted by Dan at 12:40 AM | Comments (7) | Trackbacks (0)

Saturday, December 24, 2005

So much for the market clearing price

On this last half-day of the holiday shopping season, I gazed upon my son with horror as he broke the spine of The Essential Calvin and Hobbes. This has symbolized my reaction to my son's recent interest in my paperback Calvin and Hobbes collections -- joy at watching him read combined with a mild dose of horror at the way he's treating the books. [Dude, he's only five--ed. I didn't say I blamed him -- I said I watched him, mute and helples, as it happened.]

However, I decided to take this as a sign to go online and buy The Complete Calvin and Hobbes from They were listing used & new from $149.99 with the following note:

Due to the number of copies printed, The Complete Calvin and Hobbes is currently unavailable. The publisher is planning to reprint this title in April 2006 and copies will become available soon afterward.
On a lark, I checked to see if Barnes and Noble had it. Not only were they carrying it, but at it was marked down to $105.

I confess to being surprised that there was this much of a price and quantity spread between Amazon and Barnes and Noble. It does make one wonder if the Economist is correct to crow about the advantages of being number two in a business.

Readers are hereby encouraged to post the greatest price spreads they've ecountered in their shopping activities among established online merchants.

UPDATE: Thanks to Rhett in the comments section for offering a plausible explanation for the discrepancy in prices.

posted by Dan at 12:13 PM | Comments (7) | Trackbacks (0)

Friday, December 23, 2005

"The judicial equivalent of a bitch slap"

That's Jacob Sullum's assessment of what 4th Circuit Court of Appeals judge Michael Luttig delivered to the Bush administration in denying their request to transfer Jose Padilla from military to civilian custody. Orin Kerr concurs.

Luttig was on Bush's short-list for Supreme Court nominees, but as Sullum points out:

The rebuke is richly deserved. Even a court that was prepared to recognize the detention authority asserted by Bush is not prepared to let him submit his policies to judicial review only when he feels like it.
Indeed, just about every branch or bureaucracy of government is bitch-slapping George W. Bush this month on national security issues.

There's the judicial branch. Beyond Luttig, another federal judge resigned from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in reaction to the NSA domestic surveillance program, forcing the administration to brief the rest of the FISA judges before they faced a full-blown judicial revolt.

There's the legislative branch. As Jim VandeHei and Charles Babington point out in today's Washington Post:

This week's uprising against a four-year extension of the USA Patriot Act was the latest example of a new willingness by lawmakers in both parties to challenge Bush and his notions of expansive executive power.

Since this spring, Congress has forced Bush to scrap plans for a broad restructuring of Social Security, accept tighter restrictions on the treatment of detainees and rewrite his immigration plan. Lawmakers have rebuffed Bush's call to make permanent his first-term tax cuts and helped force the president to speak more candidly about setbacks in Iraq.

"What you have seen is a Congress, which has been AWOL through intimidation or lack of unity, get off the sidelines and jump in with both feet," especially on the national security front, said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.).

What is most striking is that the pushback is coming not just from Democrats and moderate Republicans, who often disagree with Bush, but also from mainstream conservatives.

The year's events, say some legislators and scholars, reflect more than just a change in the president's legislative scorecard. They suggest Bush may have reached the outer limits of a long-term project to reshape the powers of the presidency.

Finally, there's the permanent bureaucracy. As David Ignatius pointed out earlier this week in the Washington Post the torture question has revealed a clash between the Bush administration and national security professionals (link via Kevin Drum):
The national security structure that the Bush administration created after Sept. 11, 2001, began to crumble this month because of a bipartisan revolt on Capitol Hill. Newly emboldened legislators forced the administration to accept new rules for the interrogation of prisoners, delayed renewal of the Patriot Act and demanded an investigation of warrantless wiretapping by the National Security Agency.

President Bush has bristled at these challenges to his authority over what has amounted to an undeclared national state of emergency. But the intelligence professionals who have daily responsibility for waging the war against terrorism don't seem particularly surprised or unhappy to see the emergency structure in trouble. They want clear rules and public support that will allow them to do their jobs effectively over the long haul, without getting second-guessed or jerked around by politicians. Basically, they don't want to be left holding the bag -- which this nation has too often done with its professional military and intelligence officers....

One little-noted factor in this re-balancing is what I would call "the officers' revolt" -- and by that I mean both military generals in uniform and intelligence officers at the CIA, the NSA and other agencies. There has been growing uneasiness among these national security professionals at some of what they have been asked to do, and at the seeming unconcern among civilian leaders at the Pentagon and the CIA for the consequences of administration decisions.

The quiet revolt of the generals at the Pentagon is a big reason U.S. policy in Iraq has been changing, far more than Bush's stay-the-course speeches might suggest. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is deeply unpopular with senior military officers. They complain privately about a management style that has stretched the military to the breaking point in Iraq. For months they have been working out details of troop reductions next year in Iraq -- not just because such action will keep the Army and Marine Corps from cracking but because they think a smaller footprint will be more effective in stabilizing the country.

A similar revolt is evident at the CIA. Professional intelligence officers are furious at the politicized leadership brought to the agency by ex-congressman Porter Goss and his retinue of former congressional staffers. Their mismanagement has peeled away a generation of senior management in the CIA's Directorate of Operations who have resigned, transferred or signaled their intention to quit when their current tours are up. Many of those who remain are trying to keep their heads down until the current wave of political jockeying and reorganization is over -- which is the last thing you would want at an effective intelligence agency.

The CIA, like the military, wants clear and sustainable rules of engagement. Agency employees don't want their careers ruined by future congressional or legal investigations of actions they thought were authorized. Unhappiness within the CIA about fuzzy rules on interrogation, and the risk of getting clobbered after the fact for doing your job, was a secret driver for Sen. John McCain's push for a new law banning cruel interrogation techniques.

The great thing about the American system of government is that whenever one branch exceeds its traditional scope of authority, that branch is eventually brought to heel by the other parts of government.

This is one of the iron laws of politics that George W. Bush is now facing.

posted by Dan at 03:49 PM | Comments (8) | Trackbacks (0)

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Why panics, pandemics, and policy don't mix

Concerns about a looming avian flu pandemic have prompted a lot of commentary and blog chatter over the past few months (including from yours truly) about whether governments are adequately pepared to combat an outbreak of avian influenza. However, panicked calls for governments to "do something" without contemplating the costs and risks that come with each strategy generally leads to bad policy.

Consider, for example, that many developed-country governments have been scrambling to load up on the drug Tamiflu as a way to treat the H5N1 variant of the bird flu. In the Financial Times, however, Andrew Jack explains why this might be a problem:

Fresh doubts were cast on the efficacy of Tamiflu as a treatment for bird flu on Wednesday night when one of the world’s most prestigious medical journals published new reports of resistance to the drug and deaths in patients in Vietnam.

Menno de Jong and colleagues from the hospital for tropical diseases in Ho Chi Minh City recorded in the New England Journal of Medicine that four out of eight patients suffering from the H5N1 flu strain and treated with Tamiflu had died, including two who developed resistance.

The reports increase suggested levels of resistance to nearly 10 per cent, or three out of the 31 known human cases of H5N1 treated with Tamiflu, which is marketed by Roche of Switzerland.

The study raises new questions about the drug, which more than 50 governments have ordered in significant quantities in recent months to stockpile as a potential prophylactic and treatment in the case of a flu pandemic.

An accompanying article in the journal reinforced calls for alternative approaches to treatment for a pandemic, including the stockpiling of the rival drug zanamivir, or Relenza.

Here's a link to the actual NEJM paper for all of the M.D.s in the house. Dr. Anne Moscona has a commentary on the paper in the NEJM that's worth reading for non-doctors as well. One disturbing implication:
It is therefore worrisome that personal stockpiling of oseltamivir [Tamiflu] is likely to lead to the use of insufficient doses or inadequate courses of therapy. Shortages during a pandemic would inspire sharing of personal supplies, resulting in inadequate treatment. Such undertreatment is of particular concern in children — the main source for the dissemination of influenza within the community, since they usually have higher viral loads than adults and excrete infectious virus for longer periods. The habit of stopping treatment prematurely when symptoms resolve (a well-established tendency with antibiotic therapy) could also lead to suboptimal treatment of influenza and promote the development of drug resistance....

Like any successful infectious agent, influenza virus will most likely evolve to evade any single drug. By targeting several points in the viral life cycle simultaneously with different drugs, we are more likely to discourage the emergence of viruses that can resist all drugs at once. But we currently rely solely on the neuraminidase inhibitors — and solely on oseltamivir in many situations, such as in patients who cannot use inhaled medication or in patients infected with H5N1 virus, in whom systemic drug levels may be important. We must not abrogate the usefulness of these drugs by exposing circulating influenza to them in such a way as to facilitate the selection of resistant viruses. The study by de Jong et al. confirms that oseltamivir-resistant H5N1 virus is now a reality. The need to learn more about how and when resistance to the neuraminidase inhibitors develops, while we focus on the development of new antiviral drugs, is pressing. This frightening report should inspire us to devise pandemic strategies that do not favor the development of oseltamivir-resistant strains. Improper use of personal stockpiles of oseltamivir may promote resistance, thereby lessening the usefulness of our frontline defense against influenza, and should be strongly discouraged. (emphasis added)

posted by Dan at 05:45 PM | Comments (2) | Trackbacks (0)

Is now the winter of my baseball discontent?

When my New York Yankee-loving brother starts posting random comments goading me to blog about baseball, you know it's not a good sign for the Boston Red Sox.

Indeed, Johnny Damon's decision to join the Yankees has prompted quite the media backlash against the performace of Red Sox management since Theo Epstein's departure as GM. One commenter on Jacob Luft's blog put it well:

So right now, the Sox have four guys who played second last year (Graffanino, Loretta, Cora and Pedroia) and three guys who played third (Lowell, Youkilis, and Marte); no real first baseman, no clear shortstop, no center fielder, a disgruntled left fielder and no leadoff hitter.
The New York Daily News' Bill Madden sounds a similar theme:
[A]s of now, [the Red Sox] have no center fielder, no shortstop, no first baseman, no bona fide closer and seemingly no game plan.

On paper anyway, there's been another seismic shift of power in the American League East with the Yankees adding the prototypical leadoff man they haven't had since Chuck Knoblauch in their last world championship season in 2000, and the Red Sox subtracting another pillar from their only world championship team since 1918.

Lest you think the criticism is coming only from Yankee-lovers, consider this Tony Massarotti rant in the Boston Herald (link via David Pinto):
[T]he 2006 Red Sox look like an 84-78 squad with a management team that is playing rotisserie baseball. The Sox still can go out and get players, but there seems little regard for how they fit together. And until we learn otherwise, there is simply no way to know that Mark Loretta and Mike Lowell can shine in Boston, that Julio Lugo or Coco Crisp is coming (or that they, too, can succeed), that Kevin Youkilis can play every day or that Keith Foulke can close again....

For Red Sox ownership and upper management, in particular, there are some bad trends being established, particularly during the last two offseasons. Pedro Martinez left. So did Derek Lowe. Now Damon is gone, too, his departure coming after negotiations with Theo Epstein also resulted in an ugly divorce between the Sox and their young general manager. When it comes to negotiating with their high-profile personalities — Jason Varitek is the exception — the Sox generally seem inclined to let the market dictate the price, then decide they do not want to pay it.

Uh, fellas?

Sooner or later, if you want to keep good people, you will have to fork over the dough.

Of course, while all of this has been going on, the Sox have been throwing away money in other areas. Last winter, even when Epstein was the GM, the Sox overpaid for Matt Clement. They forked over $40 million for Edgar Renteria, then decided he wasn’t worth it (after one year) and shipped him to the Atlanta Braves. They ate $11 million of Renteria’s remaining contract and took on the $18 million due Lowell. In the same trade that brought the Marlins third baseman, they shipped away Hanley Ramirez, a highly regarded prospect who seemed part of their long-term plan.

Confused yet? You should be. Amid all of the comings and goings this offseason, Fenway Park has become baseball’s version of Wisteria Lane. There has been speculation and finger-pointing, controversy and confusion.

Meanwhile, a team suffers.


Is there any hope for Red Sox Nation? I think the answer is yes, but it takes a little work.

First, consider that each of the individual trades/signings that the Red Sox have made this offseason can be defended. No one except the Yankees thought Johnny Damon was worth $13 million a year. Trading a backup catcher for a former All-Star second baseman seems like a shrewd move. Renteria was never comfortable in Boston, and in trading him the Red Sox got one of the top ten prospects in all of baseball. Getting Josh Beckett was worth the costs in prospects -- especially since the Sox also got a premier set-up man and a Gold Glove third baseman. The problem isn't with the individual moves -- it's whether one can see an overall plan when the moves are combined.

Second, left unsaid in all the critiques is the fact that the Sox have done a very good job of rebuilding their pitching staff. In the past few months the Sox have lost Mike Myers and Chad Bradford while acquiring Josh Beckett, Guillermo Mota, and Jermaine Van Buren via trade, re-signing Mike Timlin, signing Rudy Seanez, and picking up Jamie Vermilyea via the Rule V draft. They have also developed a raft of quality arms -- Jonathan Papelbon, Manny Delcarmen, Craig Hansen, and Jon Lester -- from their own farm system. That's a set of pretty decent moves made at low cost given the way the market for pitching has gone as of late. And while it may be overly optimistic to expect Curt Schilling or Keith Foulke to perform at their 2004 levels, it would be way to pessimistic to see them be as bad as they were in 2005. To be sure, not all of these pitchers will pan out, but enough of them will for the 2006 pitching staff to look better than the 2005 version.

Third, the off-season is only half over. The $64,000 question is whether the Red Sox can trade from their strengths (pitching, second base, third base, farm system) to improve their weaknesses (leadoff hitter, centerfieldier, shortstop, first base) between now and February. The big concern here is whether these obvious deficiencies will force the Sox into desperate moves in January and February. However, it's also worth remembering that the Sox had uninspiring production from two of those positions in 2005 and still made it to the playoffs.

Finally, it's worth remembering that at this point last year everyone was trashing White Sox GM Ken Williams for a series of moves that laid the foundation for the 2005 team. The only thing that matters is the how the team performs on the field between April and October.


[How convinced are you by your own analysis?--ed. About 55% -- the other 45% of the time I'm with Massarotti.]

UPDATE: Sam Crane offers Confucion and Taoist perspectives on the Damon signing.

posted by Dan at 04:24 PM | Comments (6) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Open Bolivia thread

I would be remiss in not mentioning that Bolivia just elected a former coca farmer turned socialist politician as president. Among his many campaign pledges are to decriminalize coca production and to renationalize the commanding heights of the national economy.

Comment away on the implications of this power transition in Andean region. Noah Millman offers various reasons for why this should concern the United States.

[Hey a few years ago you were pretty sanguine about the rejection of the neoliberal model in Latin America. How about now?--ed.] Well, the spread of Chavez-like politicans throughout Latin America would be intrinsically bad. At the same time, this Associated Press report suggests just how difficult it will be to foster regional solidarity by pursuing a policy of economic nationalism:

The winner of Bolivia's presidential elections has repeated his vow to nationalize oil and gas and said he will void at least some contracts held by foreign companies "looting" the poor Andean nation's natural resources.

Indian coca farmer Evo Morales said he will not confiscate refineries or infrastructure owned by multinational corporations. Instead, his government would renegotiate contracts so that the companies are partners, but not owners, in developing Bolivia's resources, he said....

On Monday, Morales said Brazilian oil company Petrobras must turn two refineries it owns in Bolivia back to Bolivian control.

Morales announced that he had asked Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to return the refineries, which Petrobras purchased in the last decade. Petrobras bought the two refineries from Bolivia's state-owned oil company in 1999 for roughly $100 million....

The top investors in Bolivia are Petroleo Brasileiro SA, known as Petrobras, Spain's Repsol YPF, France's Total SA, British Gas and BP PLC . Foreign energy firms have invested $3.5 billion in Bolivia since 1996. But after the passage of the new hydrocarbons law in May, and amid increasing calls for an outright nationalization of the energy industry in Bolivia, they this year have mostly frozen any new investments. (emphases added)

So, the new Bolivian president's first move is to alienate his top foreign investor, who happens to be.... Brazilian. The last paragraph suggests that staying this course will retard other foreign investors. And note that no U.S.-based multinational appears on that list.

Even if Hugo Chavez lends a hand, I don't think this strategy is going to inspire a lot of solidarity elsewhere in the continent.

posted by Dan at 04:13 PM | Comments (17) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

And you thought Heidi Fleiss' little black book was bad

If this Anne Kornblut story in the New York Times is true, then there are a lot of people inside the beltway who are going to be feeling very, very nauseous for the next few weeks:

Jack Abramoff, the Republican lobbyist under criminal investigation, has been discussing with prosecutors a deal that would grant him a reduced sentence in exchange for testimony against former political and business associates, people with detailed knowledge of the case say.

Mr. Abramoff is believed to have extensive knowledge of what prosecutors suspect is a wider pattern of corruption among lawmakers and Congressional staff members. One participant in the case who insisted on anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations described him as a "unique resource."

Other people involved in the case or who have been officially briefed on it said the talks had reached a tense phase, with each side mindful of the date Jan. 9, when Mr. Abramoff is scheduled to stand trial in Miami in a separate prosecution.

What began as a limited inquiry into $82 million of Indian casino lobbying by Mr. Abramoff and his closest partner, Michael Scanlon, has broadened into a far-reaching corruption investigation of mainly Republican lawmakers and aides suspected of accepting favors in exchange for legislative work.

posted by Dan at 10:06 PM | Comments (12) | Trackbacks (0)

Christmas in the Pacific Rim

I'm back from Hong Kong, and seriously jet-lagged. Before I stop thinking about that jewel of a city, however, I have a question for any cultural anthropologists in the crowd -- what's the deal with Christmas in the Pacific Rim?

The city of Hong Kong -- never shy of neon -- was engulfed in Christmas decorations the week I was there. This web site points out::

Christmas in Hong Kong is the time for the tasteless, the season for the syrupy, the holiday for the horrific -- if we're talking about lights and decorations, that is. There may be another city that can equal Hong Kong in the banality of its Christmas decorations, but it's sure to fall short in terms of sheer volume.
I was told that I would see the same thing in Tokyo as well.

Many Westerners who attended the WTO Ministerial expressed distaste about this phenomenon as well -- not on religious grounds, but rather because to them it epitomizes the homogenization of western tastes.

I think this is much ado about nothing. I doubt that any North American city, with the possible exception of Las Vegas, would festoon itself in the same way Hong Kong has -- but then again, no other American city is as in love with neon as HK. However, to repeat my question to Tyler Cowen or anyone else who would know -- why is Christmas so big in so many non-Christian countries?

My hunch is that it's a marketing opportunity, but I'm open to other suggestions.

posted by Dan at 10:01 PM | Comments (18) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, December 19, 2005

Drezner gets results from Pakistan!

Remember when I blogged that an inpressive display of U.S. aid to South Asia following the earthquake their would improve our standing in that part of the globe?

I bring this up only because of some new poll results released by Terror Free Tomorrow:

In the first poll in Pakistan since the earthquake of October 8, 2005, Pakistanis now hold a more favorable opinion of the United States than at any time since 9/11, while support for Al Qaeda in its home base has dropped to its lowest level since then. The direct cause for this dramatic shift in Muslim opinion is clear: American humanitarian assistance for Pakistani earthquake victims....

73% of Pakistanis surveyed in November 2005 now believe suicide terrorist attacks are never justified, up from 46% just last May.

Support for Osama Bin Laden has declined significantly (51% favorable in May 2005 to just 33% in November), while those who oppose him rose over the same period from 23% to 41%.

US favorability among Pakistanis has doubled from 23% in May to more than 46% now, while the percentage of Pakistanis with very unfavorable views declined from 48% to 28%.

For the first time since 9/11, more Pakistanis are now favorable to the United States than unfavorable.
78% of Pakistanis have a more favorable opinion of the United States because of the American response to the earthquake, with the strongest support among those under 35.

Click here to see the full results in .pdf format.

UPDATE: Husain Haqqani and Kenneth Ballen talk about the survey in the Wall Street Jounal. :

posted by Dan at 06:31 PM | Comments (19) | Trackbacks (0)

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Is there a deal or not?

After a long night, the Associated Press is prematurely reporting that a trade deal has been reached:

Negotiators at the World Trade Organization have agreed on a sweeping trade deal dismantling barriers to trade in agriculture, manufacturing and services, India's trade minister said Sunday....

Delegates met overnight into Sunday and managed to overcome differences on a draft text. A final agreement on an exact date was expected later in the day, Indian Trade Minister Kamal Nath said.

"We'll have a definite date," he said. "We have a deal."

Nath said that ending agricultural export subsidies by 2013 would be acceptable to India, one of the leading developing nations and a key player in the rules-setting WTO.

CNN reports that there's just one sticking point remaining:
Just one issue remained unresolved as World Trade Organization negotiators worked to reach a series of agreements to end agricultural, manufacturing and service trade barriers, according to a WTO official Sunday.

The issue yet to be settled is the date for ending export subsidies, WTO press officer Emmanuelle Ganne told CNN.

This sounds great... except I just talked to an EU official who's making the rounds in the press room and apparently that sticking point ain't going anywhere for a while. The sticking point remains ending agricultural export subsidies, and that the EU did put forward 2013 as the end date. The problem was that at the last minute Brazil pushed for an earlier date -- and it all fell apart.

My hunch is that Humpty Dumpty has a decent chance of being put together again -- I think the EU is trying to tell the Brazilians and others it's either 2013 or no deal, and I suspect the Brazilians will take what they can get. One possible explanation for Nath's statement is that the Indians are trying to publicly signal to the Brazilians to accept the deal on the table. That said, the EU folks are exceedingly grumpy right now, so I wouldn't place a great deal of faith in that hunch.

The hard deck for the Ministerial will be 5 AM Hong Kong time on Monday (4 PM Sunday EDT). That's when the Convention Center here has to prep for its next booking.

A side note: one of the amusing features of being in the press room is seeing the pack mentalityof journalism in action. If a sufficient number of journalists are congregating around person A, then that group starts acting like a powerful magnet attracting the individual iron fillings of other journalists. Sometimes this makes a great deal of sense -- as when the EU tspokesman contradicts the India statement. Sometimes it makes no sense -- as when a great throng materialized to get their hands on... a schedule of the Ministerial's closing ceremonies. No one gives a flying fig about that.

UPDATE: Both the AP and Reuters are reporting that there's a deal. The AP story has more details:

WTO negotiators reached a breakthrough on the most contentious issue of their six-day talks, agreeing that wealthy countries would eliminate farm export subsidies by 2013, according to a final draft of the accord. The deal paves the way for a broader agreement to cut trade barriers across various sectors.

The breakthrough, coming after all-night negotiations, appeared to save the World Trade Organization meeting from an embarrassing collapse provided the final draft is approved by all 149 member nations and territories who are meeting later Sunday.

The 2013 date was a key demand of the European Union, which held out against intense pressure from Brazil and other developing nations to phase out a significant proportion of its farm export subsidies by 2010. Developing nations say the government farm payments to promote exports undercuts the competitive advantage of poor farmers.

The revised text also sets April 30, 2006, as a new deadline to work out formulas for cutting farm and industrial tariffs and subsidies - a key step toward forging a sweeping global free trade treaty by the end of next year....

The final draft also calls on wealthy nations to allow duty-free and quota-free privileges to at least 97 percent of products exported by the so-called least developed countries by 2008.

In addition, the draft retained an earlier proposal that rich countries to eliminate all export subsidies on cotton in 2006.

posted by Dan at 09:15 PM | Comments (20) | Trackbacks (0)

So this is what it's like to be in a lockdown

Despite the fact that the WTO negotiations are, at best, making marginal progress, the Korean Peasants Association appears bound and determined to wreak havoc in Wan Chai (the neighborhood where the Ministerial is being held).

The result is that Hong Kong's Secretary for Security made an announcement for the public to leave Wan Chai. Which is great, except for those of us staying in hotels in Wan Chai.

The result is that I've spent this evening looking at policemen sheathed in protest gear -- gas masks, body-length Plexiglass shielding, truncheons, etc. -- while drinking and dining at the hotel buffet along with a healthy number of WTO delegates. It's more than a bit surreal.

The truly bizarre thing is that, having ventured out earlier in the evening, I'm quite certain that the number of curious onlookers outnumbers the actual protestors, the press contingent outnumbers the protestors, and the police most definitely outnumber the protestors. The Korean protestors are certainly causing inconveniences beyond their numbers, but this is a much smaller contingent of activists than were present at either Seattle in 1999 or Cancun in 2003. And any press report suggesting otherwise is full of it.

Do check out Simon's World for a link-rich post on the Ministerial.

posted by Dan at 11:00 AM | Comments (4) | Trackbacks (0)

Wherein the University of Chicago defies all reason

A few months ago when the whole tenure and blogging question became a hot topic (I'm still fielding press inquiries) I tried to reiterate the same point over and over again -- it's possible that blogging played a role in my own denial, but I seriously doubt it was the overriding factor.

I bring this up again because Jacob Levy has gone public with his own denial of tenure. Read the whole thing, but Jacob closes his post with the following:

Mainly I'm putting this up because the publicity around Dan Drezner's case led to a lot of e-mailed questions and some blog speculation about mine. If you're looking for things in common between Dan's case and mine, don't look to blogging; and don't look to our libertarian politics.... Look to the fact that both political economy and liberal political theory are outside the emerging, Perestroikan, sense of what this department's about.
I've blogged about perestroika and political science in the past -- check out those posts for my take on the debate.

I can neither confirm nor deny Jacob's hypothesis about perestroika's deletrious effects on my department. After witnessing my department's treatment of Jacob's case, I'm afraid that the primary hypothesis I cannot falsify is that a majority of my senior colleagues are complete and total wankers have unorthodox views of what constitutes appropriate social science.

Chris Lawrence has further thoughts.

posted by Dan at 03:04 AM | Comments (31) | Trackbacks (0)

Friday, December 16, 2005

When trade negotiators get cranky

What happens when you stick great power trade ministers in a green room in a strange city, deprive them of sleep, and then throw some spanners into the negotiating machine?

They get damn cranky is what happens.

I just left a series of press conferences, and pretty much everyone was tired, frustrated, and occasionally pissed off. The Americans, the Brazilians, the West Africans, and especially the Europeans were all upset. EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson had the following utterances at his press conference:

Some people in Hong Kong will lose their strategic gains by pursuing tactical maneuvers.... The level of ambition [in the Doha round] is going backwards.... [There is] no clear basis for negotiations.... Hard to see where progress can be achieved in Hong Kong.
If I were WTO Director-General Pascal Lamy, I'd suggest a nice "time out" for tomorrow. And maybe some snack time.

UPDATE: The Independent publishes a day in the life of Peter Mandelson that reaffirms this point: [Mandelson] has been asleep for five hours and ahead of him are 10 meetings spread over at least 18 hours. Welcome to the mad, mad world of global trade negotiations....

Mr Mandelson is also garnering a reputation of squashing journalists whose questions he doesn't like. On Tuesday he destroyed a German reporter and now he shows his exasperation at an Indian journalist who asks a question that, in fairness, he has answered twice already.

posted by Dan at 02:00 AM | Comments (1) | Trackbacks (0)

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Everything you always wanted to know about Aid For Trade

A big issue that's come up at the Hong Kong Ministerial is the idea of Aid For Trade. What is Aid for Trade? According to paragraph 51 of the draft Ministerial text of the WTO:

Aid for Trade should aim to help developing countries, particularly LDCs [Least Developed Countries], to build the supply-side capacity and trade-related infrastructure that they need to assist them to implement and benefit from WTO Agreements and more broadly to expand their trade. Aid for Trade cannot be a substitute for the development benefits that will result from a successful conclusion to the DDA [Doha Development Agenda], particularly on market access. However, it can be a valuable complement to the DDA.
That's still a bit vague, so I've asked Paul Applegarth, a Senior Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States -- and the former CEO of the Millennium Challenge Corporation -- to explain the idea in a bit more detail:

It has long been agreed that this WTO round should be a Development Round, benefiting the poorest people and the poorest countries in the world. Ironically, even as the on-going talks at the Hong Kong Ministerial struggle with issues important for development like agricultural Market Access and trade-distorting subsidies, there has been an increasing recognition that freer trade alone is not enough. Any trade agreement will need to be accompanied by a development financing package to help the poorest countries build the capacity to participate in freer markets.

Providing financing for development does not fall normally within the purview of the WTO, but the issue of Aid for Trade or Trade Capacity Building has achieved sudden prominence here in Hong Kong. The United States has announced its intention to double its Trade Capacity Building assistance by 2010, and it is not alone. Some EU states and Japan have also weighed in. Cynics argue that in some cases the offers are intended to distract from the failure to take more meaningful steps like granting increased market access, but in at least some cases the offers seem genunine. (The U.S. offer for example does not appear to be conditioned on an acceptable WTO deal).

A puzzle in all this is that despite all the talk, there seems to be little understanding of what exactly Aid for Trade or Trade Capacity Buidling is. Some talk about infrastructure, others about meeting international quality standards or reducing customs delays. The World Bank is pushing for expansion of something with the brain-numbing title of the "Enhanced Integrated Framework", notwithstanding the fact that this framework has been around for several years and accomplished little, and on initial examination seems to involve strengthening the capacity of poor countries to negotiate at WTO headquarters in Geneva and funding a number of expatriate consultants to write studies diagnosing the trade needs of LDC's. Good stuff, perhaps, but unlikely to have an immediate impact on boosting the incomes of the rural poor.

It would be easy to dismiss all of this as simply more international bureacratic chatter, if the stakes were not so high. The funding is real, and the opportunity to use it well is real. Fortunately, there are some groups and institutions trying to bring some clarity to the discussion, with the recognition that some concrete proposals need to be developed quickly if the opportunity is not to squandered.

Yesterday, the German Marshall Fund of the United States convened a discussion of key players to move the ball forward. The discussion was led off by remarks from Swedish Ambassador to the WTO Mia Horn, and Miguel Rodriquez of the International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development in Geneva. There was active partcipation by senior representatives of the Wolrd Bank, the U.K.'s Department for International Development, UNDP, the IMF, USAID, Oxfam, the Overseas Development Institute, the Hewlett Foundation, the Development Assistance Committee of the OECD, the International Lawyers and Economists Against Poverty, the WTO Secretariat, and others.

There was no consensus on the initial range of issues discussed, other than that the opportunity existing to develop some meaningful proposals and that the work needed to be done quickly to take advantage of that opportunity. However, significant progress was made in identifying the key issues: who shoulfd benefit, how to determine effectiveness, funding, and expanding participation by the LDCs themselves.


posted by Dan at 10:35 PM | Comments (2) | Trackbacks (0)

It's déjà vu in Hong Kong... or is it?

A former U.S. trade negotiator during the Uruguay round sent me an e-mail that contained the following:

I haven't keep current, thank goodness, on ag trade policy issues for more than 10 years. However, I suspect the lay of the land hasn't changed much: - Agricultural trade, as usual, is the biggest block to freer trade for agricultural products... but also non-agricultural products since the agricultural stalemate is holding up progress in non-agricultural talks:
- The EU is the biggest block to freer trade in ag products.

- France is the biggest block to the EU accepting freer trade in ag products (and therefore non-ag products).

- French agricultural organizations (especially FNSEA) are the biggest block to the government of France accepting freer ag trade.

- French grain and meat producers are the biggest anti-free trade forces in the FNSEA.
Given the current stalemate in talks -- and Peter Mandelson's intransigence on the EU taking the next step on ag subsidies -- it would seem that everything old is new again. However, there are two new wrinkles to current negotiations as opposed to prior rounds.

First, small countries have figured out that they can use the need for consensus to threaten walkouts if they don't get something. For example, The Independent's Philip Thornton reports that the west African country of Benin is now a major player:

The mood soured [at the WTO meetings] further when Benin indicated it was prepared to walk out of the talks over the failure of the US to meets its demand to end cotton subsidies.

The last meeting two years ago in Cancun, Mexico, collapsed after a handful of countries walked out over cotton, depriving the WTO of the 100 per cent mandate it needs to strike a deal.

Samuel Amehou, Benin's ambassador to the WTO, said African cotton producers have to compete against vast subsidies paid to US farmers. He said African states would "not accept any consensus that did not take the legitimate interests of the African farmers into account".

He added: "The conference in Hong Kong is the place to hold people to their commitments."

Ibrahim Malloum, the head of the African Cotton Producers Association, said he did not want a repeat of Cancun but added: "We came here to get concrete results, not to hear more proposals that will never be respected."

Second, the "advanced" developing countries are getting just as good at being hypocrites on trade issues as the developed world. Consider these excerpts from Victor Mallet's FT story on Indian commerce minister Kamal Nath:
Kamal Nath, India’s commerce minister, said there would be no deal at the WTO talks in Hong Kong unless developed nations stop demanding concessions from poor countries in exchange for reducing agricultural and other protectionism that should not be there in the first place.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Mr Nath said: “What really upsets me is that developed countries are asking: ‘If we stop doing what we shouldn’t be doing, what are you willing to pay us for it?’”

“That approach is not one which is going to fly.”

He added: “We can’t have our economy shaken by subsidised exports of food, of grains, and at the same time we can’t have our economy shaken just as we are nurturing our manufacturing sector.”

This sounds great -- but let's reconsider what Arvind Panagariyapointed out in Foreign Affairs about levels of protection in the developing and developed world.
Take sugar, for example: Sugar is highly protected in virtually all major developed and developing countries. It is subject to the following MFN rates, for example: 72 percent in South Africa, 60 percent in India and Japan, 56 percent in high-income developing Asia, 43 percent in the United States, 23 percent in Central America and the EU (and 74 percent in other European countries), 18 percent in China, and 17 percent in Argentina and Brazil. Thus, reforming tariffs on sugar will require virtually all WTO members to liberalize. The EU and the United States are major offenders, but others -- including developing countries -- are not without blame....

[T]he EU also needs compensation for its [agricultural] concessions. Recall that at Cancún it dropped investment, competition policy, and government procurement from the Doha agenda. And because the EU does not have a comparative advantage in agriculture, it is naturally seeking cross-sector reciprocity in the form of liberalization in industrial products and services. The next step in breaking the U.S.-EU impasse is to put offers on industrial products and services on the table quickly. This would be a step forward: the elimination of tariff peaks in developed countries and liberalization by developing countries in trade in the industrial sector promise gains commensurate with agricultural liberalization.

But for tariff reductions to really be beneficial, action will be required of both developed and developing countries. The gains to developing countries from lowering border barriers will be minuscule if reform is limited to developed countries.

When Nath blames EU intransigence on agriculture for the talks not going anywhere, he's half right -- because at this point India deserves just as much of the blame.

posted by Dan at 06:05 AM | Comments (3) | Trackbacks (0)

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

I sound very smart in German. Not so much in English.

A few months ago I gave an interview to Norweigan journalist Olav Anders Øvrebø on the politics of blogs in the United States. For those of you who understand German, it's now up at the Netzeitung web site. Among other things, I say:

Das Bloggen ist aber kein ausschließlich demokratisches Phänomen. Es ist einfacher bekannt zu werden, wenn man quasi offiziell zur Elite gehört, zum Beispiel als Professor. Aber das alleine reicht nicht. Man muss schreiben können, und das im Blog-Stil. Einige meiner Kollegen haben versucht zu bloggen, haben aber offenbar nicht verstanden, dass ein wissenschaftlicher Artikel als Blog-Eintrag nicht funktioniert. Man braucht einen guten Stil - und man muss bereit sein, Fehler einzuräumen und zu korrigieren.
[Wow, sounds very erudite. What does it mean?--ed.] Well, translated through Babelfish:
The Bloggen is however none excluding democratic phenomenon. It is more simply admits to become, if one belongs quasi officially to the elite, for example than professor. But that alone is not enough. One must be able to write, and in the Blog style. Some my colleagues it have tried to bloggen, however obviously did not understand that a scientific article does not function as Blog entry. One needs a good style - and one must be ready to grant and correct errors
[That sounds.... less erudite--ed.] Readers are encoraged to find the sentence in the interview that sounds the most ridiculous when re-translated into English.

posted by Dan at 08:45 PM | Comments (9) | Trackbacks (0)

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is getting some bad press -- again

Poor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Iranian president just can't escape his press stereotype. Marc Wolfensberger has the latest story for Bloomberg:

The West has "fabricated a myth under the name 'Massacre of the Jews,' and they hold it higher than God himself, religion itself and the prophets themselves,'' Iran's leader told thousands of supporters in the south-eastern Sistan-Baluchestan province, state television showed in a live broadcast.

"If you say and insist it's true that you killed 6 million Jews in crematoria during World War II, then why should the Palestinians pay for that?'' Ahmadinejad asked. "Our proposal is that you give a piece of your land in Europe, the U.S., Canada or Alaska. If you do that, the Iranian people will no longer protest against you.''

This is the strongest anti-Israeli public comment by Ahmadinejad since he took office in August. The Iranian president drew international condemnation on Oct. 26 after saying that Israel should be "wiped off the map.'' On Dec. 8, he prompted another outcry when he said Europe should host Israel on its soil. Some 6 million Jews were killed by the Nazis until Germany's defeat in the 1939-1945 war.

Now, far be it for me to pass up an opportunity to poke some fun at Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but if I were his spinmeister, I'd stress that he really didn't say anything new in these statements. He's articulated his belief that the Holocaust did not happened, and he's articulated his belief that Israel should be removed from the Middle Eastern region. All Ahmadinejad did in his recent utterances was reaffirm his previous positions. So, I'd make darn sure the press got the following bullet point:
The President of Iran has not ratcheted up his anti-Israeli rhetoric -- his views on Israel have remain unchanged since he took office.

posted by Dan at 07:06 PM | Comments (11) | Trackbacks (0)

The good news about tsunami aid

With the one-year anniversary of the Asian tsunami upon us, it's worth following up on the outpouring of aid that took place. All too often the topline numbers look impressive, but the follow-through is weak -- money is either misallocated or not spent at all.

So how has the tsunami aid worked out? Surprisingly well, as it turns out. The OECD's Development Assistance Committee has tracked oficial aid flows, and reports that the aid got to where it was supposed to go:

Two-thirds of the aid which the European Commission and the 22 member governments of the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee pledged to countries hit by the Indian Ocean tsunami has been spent or ear-marked for specific projects, according to statistics gathered by the OECD....

Donor governments and the European Commission have committed USD 1.7 billion to emergency aid and USD 1.9 billion to longer term reconstruction projects, to be spent by 2009. More than 90% of the emergency aid – nearly USD 1.6 billion – was spent in the nine months immediately following the disaster. For reconstruction, USD 473 million has been spent, leaving USD 1. 4 billion committed and in the pipeline for spending over the coming years.

The rest of the money pledged will be committed once other specific projects and programmes have been identified.

Together, Indonesia and Sri Lanka have received more than 60% of the funds committed so far.
2005 has been a year of extreme humanitarian challenges. The tsunami was by far the greatest in terms of lives lost and destruction and donors responded generously.

Click here for a glance at the country-specific tables.

Has the money done any good? Over at Foreign Policy's web site, Karl F. Inderfurth, David Fabrycky, and Stephen P. Cohen say yes:

[T]he danger existed that the tsunami relief story would play out like too many others: Aid pledges are made following the disaster, only to go unfulfilled as interest and attention wane. But tsunami relief has been sustained. Donors are keeping their pledges, NGOs have billions in the bank to spend on projects, and survivors continue to be cared for relatively well. Substantial government aid packages have been complemented by an astonishing level of private giving. For example, the U.S. government has pledged a total of $857 million, and U.S. private and corporate donations total at least $1.48 billion....

The region is now transitioning from relief to recovery. Almost all the 150,000 Indonesian students who lost their educational facilities returned to school within two months of the disaster. Most are meeting in tents or temporary facilities, but plans are in place to rebuild more than 350 schools. Tens of thousands of unemployed people have gone back to work through cash-for-work programs and the busy construction sector.

These are temporary fixes, however, and a long-term solution depends on restoring the devastated fishing, agriculture, and small-business sectors and diversifying the local economies. Fortunately, the tourism industries of affected countries have bounced back quickly, with the exception of the Maldives, which has seen a 45 percent drop in visitors this year. Food supplies are adequate. Health and sanitation remain good as the reconstruction of medical facilities progresses. Housing is the short-term challenge that most frustrates the displaced persons and aid donors....

Enough money has been raised to cover most medium-term reconstruction costs, if it is well spent. The unprecedented amount of resources mobilized may allow affected areas to realize the relief community’s mantra of “building back better”—rebuilding communities with better housing, education, healthcare, and economies than existed before the disaster. Due to their sizable aid commitments, international donors have sustained their focus on transparency and accountability in the recovery process. Innovative publicly available systems have been developed to track tsunami-related spending and to match donors with recipients, such as the U.N. Tsunami Expenditure Tracking System and publicly accessible online databases that keep track of aid dollars. Indeed, the most pressing need is for better coordination of the hundreds of groups involved. Ironically, one problem at this point may be that some organizations have too much money. Some relief officials complained earlier in the year that NGOs flush with money were able to work alone and “fly the flag,” ultimately hindering the integration of relief operations and leading to duplication.

When too much money is a problem, it's safe to say the aid effort has been remarkably successful.

Alas, as these charts demonstrate, the outpouring of aid for the tsunami has not been matched in other disasters. Whereas more than 80% of funding requirements for the tsunami have been met, aid levels for the victims of the South Asian quake have at only 30% of needed levels.

posted by Dan at 12:32 AM | Comments (6) | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Ag subsidies revealed!!!

We know that a sticking point in the WTO negotiations is the resistance by the developed world to reduce their agricultural subsidies. Within that simple statement, however, the nature of ag subsidies is incredibly opaque. If you read Arvind Panagariya's Foreign Affairs essay, you discover that there are different "boxes" of subsidies. You also discover -- according to Cato's Daniel A.Sumner -- that many of these subsidies could soon be ruled as in violation of existing U.S. commitments to the WTO.

For now, however, these subsidies are here -- but who, exactly, gets them?

For that answer, I encourage you to check out the Environmental Working Group's Farm Subsidy Database. Through many, many FOIA requests, they have produced. an interactive website chock full of interesting facts. For example:

  • Half of all subsidies go to only 5% of Congressional districts.

  • Four commodities—corn, wheat, rice and cotton—account for 78 percent of all ag subsidies.
  • EWG also has an interesting proposal to reallocate the ag money away from subsidies but towards rural areas where farmers actually generate high value-added goods already.

    [Yes, we know U.S. subsidies are bad. What about EU ag subsidies?--ed.] Until recently, the EU's Common Agricultural Policy was way more opaque in terms of its allocation of funds. However, there's a new website called, which provides as much info on CAP subsidies as is available (shockingly, countries like France have ignored an EU directive and refused to make their subsidy records available to the public).

    Among the more useful tidbits of info:

  • More than 80 percent of CAP payments go into 20 percent of farms -- including, deliciously enough, members of European royalty. The Queen of England, for example, received over 230,000 euros a year.

  • 5 million farms recceive less than 1,250 euros in payments

  • New EU members from Eastern Europe pay more into the CAP program than they receive in subsidies.
  • Go check it all out.

    posted by Dan at 07:16 PM | Comments (11) | Trackbacks (0)

    Monday, December 12, 2005

    What happens at a WTO Ministerial -- day one

    One would assume that a minister-level meeting of a big international governmental organization like the WTO would consist of a lot of big plenary sessions combined with backroom, smoke-filled, coffee-laden negotiations. This is probably true, but in the era of NGOs and mass media coverage, there's a new wrinkle to these kind of meetings -- all of the NGO-related public panels designed to attract NGO reps and reporters who cannot attend the back-room sessions.

    The result is a weird amalgamation of quasi-academic workshop and floating press conference. NGOs supply a bevy of panels, roundtables, and speeches -- the goal being to attract as much press coverage as possible (see Victor Mallet and Justine Lau's story in the Financial Times for more on this). The conundrum is that the substance of trade issues are so mind-numbingly boring that just uttering the word "modalities" sends most reporters into a coma.

    The result is that the events that capture the most attention are the ones with the greatest celebrity or the greatest divergence of views. Yesterday, for example, OxFam attracted a great deal of press coverage for its handoff of a petition to WTO Director General Pascal Lamy. Part of this was because Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal was there as official OxFam presenter (Bernal also succeeded in generating a fair amount of swooning from many of the female attendants and not a small number of male ones).

    For an example of divergence of views, there is the debate that I'm sitting in as I type this, between WTO official Alejandro Jara (he's fer trade) vs. director of Focus on the Global South Walden Bello (he's agin' it). At this debate, the press outnumbers the attendants 4 to 1.

    The trick at these sort of meetings is to separate the wheat from the chaff -- most of the time, these meetings are an exercise in repeating talking points. Occasionally, someone will say something edifying. In this case, the only illuminating statement was made by Jara, who pointed out that despite the image of horsetrading among member countries during the Doha round, there have been no new commitments to liberalize for the Doha round -- just a commitment to lock in prior, autonomous, unilateral moves towards liberalization. This does not bode well for these meetings -- because without some horse trading, nothing's gonna happen.

    There was a defender of ag subsidies at the meeting, however. A U.S. soybean farmer piped up halfway through, arguing that international competition ruins the small family farmer. This has a grain of truth to it in the developed world, but I don't see why agriculture is so special -- last I checked, there are no subsidies for hunter-gatherers being proposed. The farmer's cure for this was "supply management," which as near as I could discern was a polite term for.... government support for family farms.


    posted by Dan at 10:25 PM | Comments (4) | Trackbacks (0)

    What's the difference between Time and Newsweek?

    So I see that Time and Newsweek have dueling cover stories about George W. Bush, his recent political misfortunes, and his plans for the future. Both of them focus on Bush's insularity, his unwillingness to change course, and his general disdain for critics.

    This leads to the age-old question that is the title of this post. Is there any difference between Evan Thomas and Richard Wolffe's Newsweek essay and the Time story by Karen Tumulty and Mike Allen?

    As near as I can discern it, there are four differences:

    1) Tumulty and Allen seem to have slightly better sources within Bush's inner circle;

    2) Perhaps because of #1, Time's story seems to have better information.

    3) Again perhaps because of #1, Time's story has a more Bush-friendly spin. Here's the opening paragraph:

    The Yuletide decorations at the White House are simpler this year. The gaudy tinsel and the 155,000 lights of 2004 have given way to a more natural look of Christmas trees decorated with white lilies and pink roses that are replaced as they wilt. Guests at the holiday parties are noticing a different tone to George Bush too. He has never liked the 26 receptions, the thousands of punishing or limp handshakes, the graceless requests for souvenir cuff links with the presidential seal. But at some of the smaller gatherings this year, Bush has freed himself from the photo line to circulate with an intensity his friends haven't seen before. An adviser who encountered Bush on one of these reconnaissance missions through the Red Room last week tells TIME, "He's listening a little more because he's looking for something new. He's looking for ideas. He wants to hear what people are saying, because something might strike him as worth following up on."
    The man is actually talking to people invited to his White House parties? Wow, that is stepping out.

    4) Time refrains from awful historical analogies like this one in the Newsweek story:

    Bush is not Lyndon Johnson. Johnson liked to keep three TVs blaring in his office, and he would call reporters at home to browbeat them. Bush has said he does not read the newspapers (actually, he does). "I'm not LBJ," Bush told a recent gathering of lawmakers. "I'm not going to sit around some map room and micromanage the war." Bush was slightly confusing his wars and presidents. It was Franklin Roosevelt who ran World War II from the Map Room; LBJ descended into the Situation Room in the basement to pick bombing targets. It is true that LBJ was nearly driven mad by his obsession with Vietnam and his insecurities about the "Harvards," whom he blamed for sucking him into the war. But forced to listen to his critics—the so-called Wise Men who gathered at the White House in March 1968 to tell him that the war was unwinnable—LBJ was able to reverse course and begin the drawdown of troops from Vietnam.
    The idea that a Johnson strength as president was how he responded to criticism on Vietnam is certainly an.... interesting interpretation of the historical record.
    Readers are encouraged to read both stories and post their thoughts.

    posted by Dan at 09:51 AM | Comments (15) | Trackbacks (0)

    Note to self: avoid Seth Mnookin

    Seth Mnookin has a long Vanity Fair story about the Judith Miller saga at the New York Times. Few people at the Times look good, and Arthur Sulzberger Jr.comes off looking like an insecure, incompetent ass. That said, I still think that Mnookin does the biggest number on Miller. The devastating part is below:

    Miller, it soon became clear, was not going to be an easy source to deal with. She initially refused to speak with [Times reporter Adam] Liptak because, she said, his story about her release from jail implied that she hadn't gotten a better deal from the prosecutor than the one that was available to her before she was imprisoned. She refused to speak with [Times reporter Janny] Scott because, she told friends, Scott had not bothered to write to her when she was in jail. (She also told people that she knew Scott was "judging" her.) At various points she wouldn't speak with [Times reporter Don] Van Natta either. On Tuesday afternoon, Van Natta approached Miller in the Times's newsroom. Miller immediately gave Van Natta a hug. "I'm so glad you're involved in this," Miller said. "Well, I'd really like to talk to you, now, if you have time," Van Natta replied. "I can't do it now," Miller answered. "I'm running off to go meet with Barbara Walters."

    "That was pretty amazing to me. I'm a colleague of hers, I'm trying to get an interview, and she doesn't have time for that, but she has time for Barbara Walters. And that night she did another one with Lou Dobbs." The next day, Van Natta ran into Miller again, in Bennett's Washington office; at that point, Miller told Van Natta she couldn't speak with him because Libby had given her permission to talk only to the grand jury. That's odd, Van Natta told her. On Monday in the newsroom, she had told the whole world Libby was her source....

    The pressure only increased over the next week. Miller kept avoiding having on-the-record conversations with Van Natta; at one point, she complained to [Times executive editor Bill] Keller about Van Natta's line of questioning, and Van Natta felt she was trying to have him removed from the story. (Miller did something similar in my case. After I approached her for this story, she complained to the editor of this magazine and raised questions about my allegiances. She also wrote to me in an e-mail, "Seth, I read what you wrote about me in your book. You never bothered to check any of your alleged facts about me. I have absolutely no intention of talking to you." Three weeks later, after the story had been written and edited, she sent another e-mail that read, "When you are finished with your research, and want my input before you write, send me a list of questions." I sent Miller questions on two occasions, to which she never replied. Outside of noting that Miller's pre-war W.M.D. reporting was faulty—which Miller herself now acknowledges—there are barely any mentions of Miller in Hard News, my book about Howell Raines and the Times. What's more, while writing it, I tried to reach her numerous times for comment. She never responded.)

    Note to self: if Seth Mnookin calls me about anything, answer in full.

    Miller now has a quasi-blog -- I'll be curious to see if she responds to this piece. [Actually, Mnookin characerizes as a website, "contain[ing] self-justifying posts and cherry-picked, laudatory articles"--ed. The man is clearly unfamiliar with blogs.]

    posted by Dan at 09:24 AM | Comments (6) | Trackbacks (0)

    Sunday, December 11, 2005

    Notes from Wan Chai

    There's nothing watching a city gearing up for a major economic meeting. Hotels in Wan Chai -- the neighborhood near the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center, where the WTO meetings will be held -- have set up X-ray scanning machines in the lobbies to check for... well, I'm not sure what, exactly but it's definitely a pain.

    Protestors started coming out in force two days before the official events even begin. According to The Standard's Doug Crets and Leslie Kwoh, the protests were peaceful but:

    Police said they were... alarmed by the mysterious disappearance of uniforms belonging to janitors, watchmen and others from local laundries and dry cleaners. The AFP news agency quoted police as saying protesters might use the uniforms to infiltrate the talks.
    Meanwhile, the presence of the protestors has also encouraged some investment firms based in Wan Chai to give their employees an early Christmas break. One commentator on Bloomberg TV said, "Happy Holidays -- and thank you, protestors!" And, of course, the strip clubs in the downtown area seem crowded with more raucous Westerners than usual. [How would you know?--ed. I swear, I walked by them to get to dinner last night.]

    Of course, in Hong Kong, there are some additional measures taken in the wake of a big meeting. In my NGO accreditation materials, there's a lovely "Influenza Pandemic Preparedness Kit" put out by Hong Kong's Department of Health. According to this document, "If one has not come into close contact with infected live poultry or birds or their droppings, there is no need to be unduly alarmed about acquiring avian flu." So if any pigeons get near me, there's going to be trouble.

    But all of this is great for the local economy, right? Well, not according to The Standard's Andrea Chiu:

    Wan Chai residents said that, while they welcome the World Trade Organization's ministerial conference and the thousands of protesters in ideological tow, so far they aren't getting much out of it.
    "There's nothing we can do," philosophized Chow Fook-wah, a newspaper hawker on the corner of Hennessy Road and Percival Street, near the start of the march route. "The police have blocked off roads and that's affected business because fewer people are walking by."....

    Wan Chai District Council chairwoman Ada Wong said she blames the government and police for creating a climate of fear in her district.

    Wong said she witnessed an overwhelming police presence in Causeway Bay, "doing nothing but patrolling."

    "If this event is so scary, why did the Hong Kong government agree to host it?"

    The police were not the only ones on high alert as many businesses along Hennessy Road closed their stores before the march started at 4 pm. The exterior metal gates at Hennessy Centre, which houses the Mitsukoshi department store, were halfway down before the march started. A security guard, one of five standing at the doors, said the shopping center would remain open as normal unless there was an incident.

    Down the street, several banks closed their ATM terminals to the public. The Nan Yang Commercial Bank posted a notice that said ATM machines would only be available when the branch is open "as a precautionary measure in response to traffic and security arrangements."

    The Bank of China, however, shut its branch at the China Resources Center on Gloucester Road for the entire week.

    Well, at least something of substance will be achieved at the WTO Ministerial itself, right? Er, not according to the Financial Times' Frances Williams:
    For many of the ministers gathering in Hong Kong for the World Trade Organisation’s biennial jamboree, which opens on Tuesday, the accession ceremony for tiny Tonga could be the highlight of their week.

    When even the main protagonists in the Doha global trade talks are vague on what they hope to achieve in the next six days, the rest of the WTO’s 149-strong membership could be forgiven for sneaking off to do a little shopping.

    . One last note -- if you're coming to Wan Chai, try to avoid staying at the Novotel Century Hotel. If you took a slab of concrete and wrapped it up in Kevlar, it would still be softer than my mattress from last night

    posted by Dan at 09:42 PM | Comments (2) | Trackbacks (0)

    Friday, December 9, 2005

    Books worth buying

    The hard working staff here at has noticed a trend in recent e-mails, along the lines of, "Say, Dan, what books would you recommend for the holidays?"

    Well, I can't help much with the holiday-themed books. What I can do is recommend the books I've been reading recently:

    Ian Urbina, Life's Little Annoyances: True Tales of People Who Just Can't Take It Anymore. Back in March I blogged about one of Urbina's New York Times stories about the small rebellions against petty annoyances. Urbina's story must have struck a nerve -- six months later he's got a short book chronicling more examples. Do check out his website at

    Zadie Smith, On Beauty. A comic novel about two academic families who can't avoid complicating each others' lives. Smith's writing style has the kind of arch omniscience I aim for in these blog posts -- the difference is that Smith hitsher target, whereas I usually swind up linking to some jaw-dropping picture of Salma Hayek as a diversion from the bad writing.

    Philip Tetlock, Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?. See my previous posts here and here about why I like this book.

    Ed Mansfield and Jack Snyder, Electing to Fight: Why Emerging Democracies Go to War A book-length updating of a groundbrreaking article from last decade. The gist is that while mature democracies may be less war-prone with each other, democatizing states are the most war-prone regime type out there. Debate amongst yourselves the disturbing policy implications that flow from this finding.

    Arrested Development - Season One and Arrested Development - Season Two. No, they're not books, but they are just so f#$%ing funny it really doesn't matter. I once again apologize to Mitchell Hurwitz for not watching this show before it got cancelled. Go watch the first two seasons -- I promise you'll never think about the music to the Peanuts TV specials the same way again.

    That's all for now -- read those and report back while I wend my way to Hong Kong.

    UPDATE: Megan McArdle has a long list of book selections. Go check them out -- you don't want to see those porcelain cheeks glisten with tears again.

    posted by Dan at 10:05 PM | Comments (8) | Trackbacks (0)

    The ne plus ultra in outsourcing

    David Barboza of the New York Times wins my Outsourcing Outrage of the Year award with, "Ogre to Slay? Outsource It to Chinese" :

    One of China's newest factories operates here in the basement of an old warehouse. Posters of World of Warcraft and Magic Land hang above a corps of young people glued to their computer screens, pounding away at their keyboards in the latest hustle for money.

    The people working at this clandestine locale are "gold farmers." Every day, in 12-hour shifts, they "play" computer games by killing onscreen monsters and winning battles, harvesting artificial gold coins and other virtual goods as rewards that, as it turns out, can be transformed into real cash.

    That is because, from Seoul to San Francisco, affluent online gamers who lack the time and patience to work their way up to the higher levels of gamedom are willing to pay the young Chinese here to play the early rounds for them.

    Read the whole thing. This is the perfect outsourcing story to generate outrage among perennially indignant. Why?
    1) The story highlights the apparent sloth and excessive affluence of Americans that inflames the passiuons of the puritanical left and right;

    2) The transaction -- Chinese gamers taking care of drudge levels of computer games -- has that whiff of cheating that will spark the ire of social conservatives (not to mention hard-core gamers);

    3) The idea that sums of money are being paid for what appears to be an unproductive economic activity will cheese off traditionalists who believe that unless a job is located in an industrial factory, it serves no good purpose;

    4) The Chinese benefit, which will annoy the realists;

    5) In the process of the transaction, the U.S. is outsourcing its decadent Western culture to the Orient, which will annoy those uncomfortable with American power.

    I eagerly await the first calls for legislation banning this kind of offshore outsourcing.

    posted by Dan at 02:52 PM | Comments (12) | Trackbacks (0)

    Thursday, December 8, 2005

    I'm always the last to find out....

    Via Virginia Postrel, I see that I've been nominated for a 2005 Weblog Award: "Best of the Top 250 Blogs."

    Virginia writes, "I don't expect to win, but I do hope to beat Dan Drezner." I'm getting creamed, so this is indeed a possibility.

    [Any way to boost your numbers?--ed. Well, Megan McArdle has a foolproof approach to getting votes: "Please go vote for us. Because if we don't win, I'll cry. Big, fat tears rolling out of my dewy green eyes, staining my porcelain cheeks as my body racks with sobs. No one wants that." Alas, you have neither green eyes nor porcelain skin--ed. No.... but think of my lovely wife, who has green eyes, porcelain skin.... and dimples that disappear when she's sad. Vote for me -- don't make my wife's dimples go away. Oh, man, that's low--ed.]

    posted by Dan at 11:15 PM | Comments (7) | Trackbacks (0)

    This week in the Ahmadinejad follies...

    Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the gift that keeps on giving as far as I'm concerned. According to Reuters's Paul Hughes, Ahmadinejad put his foot in his mouth in Saudi Arabia today:

    Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Thursday expressed doubt the Holocaust took place and suggested the Jewish state of Israel be moved to Europe.

    His comments, reported by Iran's official IRNA news agency from a news conference he gave in the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca, follow his call in October for Israel to be "wiped off the map", which sparked widespread international outrage....

    Ahmadinejad was quoted by IRNA as saying: "Some European countries insist on saying that Hitler killed millions of innocent Jews in furnaces and they insist on it to the extent that if anyone proves something contrary to that they condemn that person and throw them in jail."

    "Although we don't accept this claim, if we suppose it is true, our question for the Europeans is: is the killing of innocent Jewish people by Hitler the reason for their support to the occupiers of Jerusalem?" he said.

    "If the Europeans are honest they should give some of their provinces in Europe -- like in Germany, Austria or other countries -- to the Zionists and the Zionists can establish their state in Europe. You offer part of Europe and we will support it."

    I confess to being confused with Ahmadinejad's actual policy towards Israel -- does he want to relocate it to Europe or just wipe it off the map entirely?

    UPDATE: The AP's Ali Akbar Dareni has a long story nicely detailing the variors international and domestic actors who have had it up to here with Ahmadinejad. The list includes the U.S., Europe, Russia, Saudia Arabia, the IAEA, Iranian moderates, and "[e]ven some of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's conservative allies." This quote, however, is really priceless: "Saudis fumed Friday that Iran's hard-line president marred a summit dedicated to showing Islam's moderate face by calling for Israel to be moved to Europe."


    posted by Dan at 07:46 PM | Comments (12) | Trackbacks (0)

    Our comparative advantage in risk

    Paul Blustein frets in the Washington Post that many developing countries are heading for another financial bubble:

    International money managers are pouring funds at a record pace into the emerging markets of Latin America, Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa. Cash is gushing into mutual funds that specialize in emerging markets, and billions of dollars more are flowing into such countries from giant insurance companies and pension funds.

    Turkey's stock market is up more than 50 percent this year; Mexico's is up more than 30 percent; Egyptian stocks have more than doubled. And investors are snapping up bonds issued by emerging-market governments with remarkable gusto.

    Therein lie the makings of future disasters, in the view of many economists, market veterans and policymakers. Having pumped large sums into emerging markets at a time of low interest rates and high prices for the commodities that many developing countries produce, investors may well bolt when conditions deteriorate, with the sudden outflow of cash devastating economies and plunging governments into default.

    "I worry that there's this perfect storm coming for emerging markets," said Kristin J. Forbes, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology economics professor who served until early this year on President Bush's Council of Economic Advisers.

    To hear professional investors tell it, their current bullishness is based on the vastly more prudent economic policies that emerging-market nations have adopted. They cite the higher ratings bestowed by credit agencies such as Moody's and Standard & Poor's on countries that only a few years ago were plagued by defaults and currency devaluations. For example, government bonds issued by Mexico, Russia and Poland now qualify as "investment grade."

    "Those ratings have come from fundamental improvements in monetary and fiscal policy," said Dario Pedrajo, senior portfolio manager at Biscayne Americas Advisors. "Deficit spending has declined considerably in emerging-market countries."

    But skeptics contend that the main reason for the boom is the paltry level of interest rates in the United States, Europe and Japan, which prompts money managers flush with cash to scour the globe for investments providing at least slightly better returns. "There's just a huge amount of money sloshing around looking for a place to go," said Desmond Lachman, an economist at the American Enterprise Institute who, as a Wall Street research analyst, was one of the first to predict doom for Argentina well before its 2001 default.

    The problem, Lachman and others said, is that the influx of cash makes the financial strength of many countries look better than it really is -- and deludes government officials into believing that their policies must be near-perfect. "Even Turkeys Fly When the Winds Are Strong" is how Lachman put it in the title of an article he published recently in the magazine International Economy.

    Lachman's article is mostly about Latin America -- but this paragraph captures his jitters pretty well:
    What is also surprising is how little attention Latin American investors seem to be paying to the gathering storm clouds over the global economy. How long do they think that global economic growth can be sustained at its recent pace with international oil prices likely to remain at their currently heady levels? Or how long do they think that international commodity prices will remain well bid in a world in which the Chinese economy slows under the weight of its deep macro-economic imbalances and in which Europe stagnates at a time of internal dissension and policy paralysis?
    There appears to be an enormous irony in the pattern of global investment flows right now. As Alan Greenspan recently noted, there has been a decline in the home bias of investment:
    The decline in home bias is reflected in savers increasingly reaching across national borders to invest in foreign assets. The rise in U.S. productivity growth attracted much of those savings toward investments in the United States. The greater rates of productivity growth in the United States, compared with still-subdued rates abroad, have apparently engendered corresponding differences in risk-adjusted expected rates of return and hence in the demand for U.S.-based assets....

    [S]tarting in the 1990s, home bias began to decline discernibly, the consequence of a dismantling of restrictions on capital flows and the advance of information and communication technologies that has effectively shrunk the time and distance that separate markets around the world. The vast improvements in these technologies have broadened investors' vision to the point that foreign investment appears less risky than it did in earlier times.

    Accordingly, the weighted correlation between national saving rates and domestic investment rates for countries representing four-fifths of world gross domestic product (GDP) declined from a coefficient of around 0.97 in 1992, where it had hovered since 1970, to an estimated low of 0.68 last year.

    The irony is that this home bias is affecting U.S. investors as well -- the Blustein article demonstrates that even as massive sums of savings from the developing world are making their way to the safe haven of the United States, institutional investors in this country are channeling more funds to the developng world.

    Does this make any sense? Most people would instinctively say no, and Blustein's implication in his article is that this crazy. My hunch is that it makes a fair amount of sense, because U.S. capital markets and financial institutions possess both a comparative and absolute advantage in coping with risk. This allows them to place large bets in developing country equity markets and earn a higher rate of return than those investing in the U.S.

    Then again, I don't have large sums of money invested in the Turkish stock market. Large, wealthy investors are heartily encouraged to post comments on how sanguine they feel about global equity markets.

    posted by Dan at 10:24 AM | Comments (10) | Trackbacks (0)

    Wednesday, December 7, 2005

    Everything you always wanted to know about trade but were afraid to ask

    Foreign Affairs has just released a special issue pertaining to all things about multilateral trade -- no subscription required. Contributors include Jagdish Bhagwati, Peter Sutherland, Carla Hills, and Charlene Barshefsky,and William Cline.

    I recommend the contributions by Arvind Panagariya and C. Fred Bergsten. Panagariya does an excellent job of disentangling the complexities of the agricultural negotiations:

    The common assertion that agricultural liberalization in rich countries would bring large benefits to LDCs is mistaken. These states -- many of them poor African countries -- benefit from the current regime because they can sell their exports at the high EU prices and buy imports at the low world prices. (Cotton is perhaps the sole exception: U.S. subsidies hurt poor countries because the EU tariff on cotton is zero and therefore its internal price for cotton is the same as the world price.) Gains to those developing countries not in the Cairns Group would accrue principally from their own liberalization. The principle of comparative advantage applies just as much to agriculture as to industry. Moreover, because developing countries do not currently enjoy trade preferences in one another's markets, they stand to gain from access there.

    Meanwhile, liberalization in developed countries would principally benefit them. Ending their agricultural subsidies would eliminate not only inefficiencies but also the losses from the spillover of the subsidies to the importing countries. Cutting tariffs will generate benefits for their consumers by lowering prices. And countries with a comparative advantage in agriculture -- mainly developed countries such as the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand as well as the richer developing countries in the Cairns Group such as Brazil, Argentina, Malaysia, and Indonesia -- would benefit from the higher world prices that would follow liberalization in the developed countries.

    Gains from the removal of subsidies under the Doha Round, moreover, are likely to be much smaller than previously thought. For one thing, negotiable subsidies have never been as large as has been publicized, and they have declined in importance over the years. Today, export subsidies are in the $3 billion to $5 billion range and domestic subsidies subject to negotiations are well below $100 billion. These numbers are not insignificant, but they are much smaller than commonly believed, making tariffs the more serious barrier to agricultural trade.

    Bergsten's essay provides an autopsy of the underlying political pressures that ail the Doha round:
    The main problems that undermine the prospects for a successful Doha Round, however, lie outside the negotiations themselves. Three factors stand out: the massive current account imbalances and currency misalignments pushing trade politics in dangerously protectionist directions in both the United States and Europe; the strong and growing antiglobalization sentiments that stalemate virtually every trade debate on both sides of the Atlantic and elsewhere; and the absence of a compelling reason for the political leaders of the chief holdout countries to make the necessary concessions to reach an agreement. Progress on each front is necessary for the Doha negotiators to have a chance of succeeding.
    [Sure, the Foreign Affairs essays tell you what the elite thinks. But what about average, ordinary, hard-working Americans?--ed.] Well, then, scoot on over to the German Marshall Fund's latest survey results on how Americans feel about trade and poverty reduction. Some of the more interesting results:
    Despite broad agreement (73%) that freer trade helps to boost prosperity, clear majorities in France (74%), Italy (65%), Germany (59%), and the United States (57%) believe that freer international trade decreases total jobs in their country. In a related question, 37% of European and 46% of American respondents favor protecting domestic jobs by raising tariffs, even if this means higher consumer prices....

    Democracy is an important factor in determining public support for helping or trading with poor countries. Overwhelming majorities support providing development assistance (80%) and promoting trade (80%) with poor countries that are democratically run, but with the mention of non-democratic regimes, support for aid and trade drops dramatically to under 45%. Most American (78%) and European (88%) respondents also agree that aid levels should be linked to a country’s efforts to fight poverty and promote democratic governance.....

    While reducing U.S. and European agricultural subsidies is a make-or-break issue in WTO talks, it does not resonate strongly with respondents in any of the countries polled. When asked about phasing out subsidies to large domestic farms, roughly equal numbers find this a high (34%), a medium (33%), or a low (29%) priority for their government to address.

    But overall, more people look favorably on providing subsidies to small farms (71%) than approve of subsidizing large farms (50%)—an attitude that contrasts with the current distribution of U.S. and EU subsidies, under which large farms receive the bulk of subsidy payments. Three quarters (74%) of U.S. respondents have a favorable view of providing subsidies to small farms, compared with 55% favorable in the case of large farms. Support for farm subsidies is lowest in Germany: 56% favorable in the case of small farms, dropping to just 32% favorable in the case of large farms. In France, 78% percent of people have a positive view of subsidizing small farms, but this plunges to just 40% who like the idea of subsidizing large farms (while a 59% majority disapprove). Given the French government’s resistance to any further cuts to farm support, this distinction in public opinion is noteworthy.

    UPDATE: One last article worth reading -- Christina Davis makes the paradoxical argument in the International Herald-Tribune that the prospects for trade liberalization would improve if the Hong Kong meetings failed:
    Patching over the differences in order to avoid headlines about a negotiation collapse would send the wrong signal. It would allow leaders in France to think that they can coddle the farm sector with exceptions for every special product and still pretend to care about development goals. It would allow leaders in Japan to believe that they can refuse a 100 percent ceiling on agricultural tariffs and still say they are committed to upholding the world trade system. It would allow the United States to continue spending $19 billion annually on its farmers while pointing fingers at other governments who fail to liberalize.

    Dramatic failure, on the other hand, might finally catch the attention of business lobbies and the public that pay little heed to the interminably long negotiations over the minutiae of trade formulas. The lines of disagreement should be widely publicized. Such failure would highlight the linkage between agricultural liberalization and broader trade liberalization.

    posted by Dan at 10:37 AM | Comments (9) | Trackbacks (0)

    Tuesday, December 6, 2005

    I'll be on the radio tonight

    From 9-11 this evening I'll be one of the guests on Extension 720 with Milt Rosenberg on WGN Radio this evening. The other guests will be the lovely and talented Eszter Hargittai and fellow U of C blogger Sean Carroll from Cosmic Variance.

    [So whatcha gonna talk about?--ed. According to Milt's blog, "[they] will discuss their forays into blogging, examine blogs as a cultural phenomenon, and relate how their blogs have influenced their life and our world." Draw your own conclusions. UPDATE: Sean's conclusions: "the view of the blogosphere we'll be offering will doubtless be narrow and unrepresentative, but fascinating nonetheless." How can you pass that up?]

    posted by Dan at 04:47 PM | Comments (3) | Trackbacks (0)

    George Carlin probably wouldn't call this a sport

    God bless the trend reporters at the Los Angeles Times -- particularly Jeffrey Fleishman, who has a story on a brand new sport -- chess boxing:

    Martin "Amok" Thomas is jabbing a right, but Frank "so-cool-he-doesn't-need-a-nickname" Stoldt is as elusive as a ribbon in the wind. He can't be hit.


    The gloves come off, and the men hurry across the canvas to the chessboard. (You heard it right.) Amok took a couple of body shots, and he's breathing hard, but he had better focus. That Stoldt, though, everyone in the gym knows he's this warrior-thinker, slamming the speed clock, cunningly moving his queen amid unraveling bandages and dripping sweat, daring Amok to leave him a sliver of opportunity.


    Velcro rips. Amok slides back into his Everlast gloves, bites down on his mouthpiece, dances around the ropes. His king's in trouble, and his punches couldn't knock lint off a jacket. Stoldt floats toward him like a cloud of big hurt.

    Such is the bewildering beauty of chessboxing. That's one word, as in alternating rounds of four minutes of chess followed by two minutes of boxing.

    The World Chess Boxing Organization provides more detailed rules:
    In a chessboxing fight two opponents play alternating rounds of chess and boxing. The contest starts with a round of chess, followed by a boxing round, followed by another round of chess and so on. In every round of chess the FIDE rules for a ´Blitz game´ apply, in every boxing round the AIBA rules apply with the following extensions and modifications: In a contest there shall be 11 rounds, 6 rounds of chess, 5 rounds of boxing. A round of chess takes 4 minutes. Each competitor has 12 minutes on the chess timer. As soon as the time runs out the game is over.

    A round of boxing takes 2 minutes. Between rounds there is a 1 minute pause, during which competitors change their gear. The contest is decided by: checkmate (chess round), exceeding the time limit (chess round), retirement of an opponent (chess or boxing round), KO (boxing round), or referee decision (boxing round). If the chess game ends in a stalement, the opponent with the higher score in boxing wins. If there is an equal score, the opponent with the black pieces wins.

    And, of course, there is a chess boxing blog. If you're interested in participating in a sanctioned chess boxing match, click here!

    [I detect some mild mockery in this post;you really want to piss off the chessboxers?--ed. On the contrary, this could sell. Thirty years ago no one took beach volleyball seriously, and now it's a professional sport.... that advertises on blogs. So would you ever watch chess boxing?--ed. Er, probably not -- but I could be tempted to watch celebrity chessboxing. Just think of Naomi Watts vs. Salma Hayek. Yes, just think......]

    posted by Dan at 09:57 AM | Comments (11) | Trackbacks (0)

    Monday, December 5, 2005

    Political science enters the White House

    Scott Shane had a New York Times front-pager on Sunday about the chief architect of the "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq" that was released earlier this week. Turns out it's a political scientist that I know:

    There could be no doubt about the theme of President Bush's Iraq war strategy speech on Wednesday at the Naval Academy. He used the word victory 15 times in the address; "Plan for Victory" signs crowded the podium he spoke on; and the word heavily peppered the accompanying 35-page National Security Council document titled, "Our National Strategy for Victory in Iraq."

    Although White House officials said many federal departments had contributed to the document, its relentless focus on the theme of victory strongly reflected a new voice in the administration: Peter D. Feaver, a Duke University political scientist who joined the N.S.C. staff as a special adviser in June and has closely studied public opinion on the war.

    Despite the president's oft-stated aversion to polls, Dr. Feaver was recruited after he and Duke colleagues presented the administration with an analysis of polls about the Iraq war in 2003 and 2004. They concluded that Americans would support a war with mounting casualties on one condition: that they believed it would ultimately succeed.

    That finding, which is questioned by other political scientists, was clearly behind the victory theme in the speech and the plan, in which the word appears six times in the table of contents alone, including sections titled "Victory in Iraq is a Vital U.S. Interest" and "Our Strategy for Victory is Clear."

    "This is not really a strategy document from the Pentagon about fighting the insurgency," said Christopher F. Gelpi, Dr. Feaver's colleague at Duke and co-author of the research on American tolerance for casualties. "The Pentagon doesn't need the president to give a speech and post a document on the White House Web site to know how to fight the insurgents. The document is clearly targeted at American public opinion."....

    Based on their study of poll results from the first two years of the war, Dr. Gelpi, Dr. Feaver and Jason Reifler, then a Duke graduate student, took issue with what they described as the conventional wisdom since the Vietnam War - that Americans will support military operations only if American casualties are few.

    They found that public tolerance for the human cost of combat depended on two factors: a belief that the war was a worthy cause, and even more important, a belief that the war was likely to be successful.

    In their paper, "Casualty Sensitivity and the War in Iraq," which is to be published soon in the journal International Security, Dr. Feaver and his colleagues wrote: "Mounting casualties did not produce a reflexive collapse in public support. The Iraq case suggests that under the right conditions, the public will continue to support military operations even when they come with a relatively high human cost."....

    Asked about who wrote the document, a White House official said Dr. Feaver had helped conceive and draft the plan, though the official said a larger role belonged to another N.S.C. staff member, Meghan L. O'Sullivan, the deputy national security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan, and her staff. The official would describe the individual roles only on condition of anonymity because his superiors wanted the strategy portrayed as a unified administration position....

    The Feaver-Gelpi hypothesis on public opinion about the war is the subject of serious debate among political scientists. John Mueller, of Ohio State University, said he did not believe that the president's speech or the victory plan - which he described as "very Feaverish, or Feaveresque" - could produce more than a fleeting improvement in public support for the war, because it was likely to erode further as casualties accumulated.

    "As the costs go up, support goes down," he said, citing patterns from the Korean and Vietnam wars.

    This is roiling elements of the mainstream media and liberal blogosphere. It's telling that the Indianapolis Star, running the same NYT story, has as its headline, "Iraq plan appears intended to win the war at home" (the NYT has the more neutral "Bush's Speech on Iraq War Echoes Voice of an Analyst"). Laura Rozen, for example, scoffs that, "The strategy is mostly designed as PR for the American public." The indictment would seem to be that the Bush administration is more concerned with the domestic politics of the Iraq war than with actually winning on the ground in Baghdad.

    As someone who's been more than a little displeased with the administration's handling of Iraq, let me state that this charge is absolutely true. The implication that this is somehow misguided is a bunch of horses**t.

    Yes, this week's events were aimed primarily at a domestic audience. But that's because, as Shane points out in the Times piece, the military already knows what its mission is in Iraq -- doing everything possible to supply security in the short run and training the Iraqis to provide security in the long run (with logistical and air support from the U.S.). For all the analogies to Vietnam that are floating around, the administration's actual plan is almost a Vietnam in reverse -- to move from 1968 (having U.S. forces doing the bulk of the fighting) to 1961 (having U.S. forces providing a training, advisory, and logistical role). As Fred Kaplan points out in Slate, this goal has actually started to seep into the military's strategic culture. One could even argue that this plan has achieved quite a bit.

    Now it's true that there are other plans out there for consideration. It's also true, as James Fallows points out in the December Atlantic, that the administration didn't really have an actual plan until the summer of 2004, and the administration deserves all the hell it can catch for that Mongolian cluster-f**k. But the plan it has now has been in place for some time. John Dickerson points out in Slate that this fact is bedeviling certain Democratic critics:

    There are reasonable grounds for criticizing the Bush/Casey strategy for dealing with the insurgency as flawed. It may be too little too late, or it may be based on rosy assumptions. But Kerry doesn't challenge it on any substantive basis. He can't, because to do so would acknowledge that Bush is offering a solution to the problem of U.S. troops inspiring insurgents.
    Which brings us to the purpose of this week's events.

    The assumption underlying Feaver and Gelpi's hypothesis is so simple that it's never stated in the article -- if a sufficiently large majority opposes an ongoing military intervention, any administration will have to withdraw regardless of the strategic wisdom of such a move. This is why, I suspect, the administration reacts so badly whenever it deals with domestic criticism about the war -- it recognizes that flagging domestic support will translate into a strategic straitjacket (though do read Fred Barnes in the Weekly Standard for a more.... creative explanation).

    The Feaver/Gelpi solution to this conundrum is to have the President spell out a clear definition for victory. And my suspicion is that they're right -- so long as that definition contains criteria that can be verifiable by non-governmental sources.

    So, yes, in part what happened last week was an exercise in public relations. But it was also a completely proper use of PR.

    posted by Dan at 11:51 PM | Comments (25) | Trackbacks (0)

    Blegging for help on Hong Kong

    I'll in Hong Kong all next week to take a first-hand look at the World Trade Organization's Ministerial Conference. I'll be representing the Geman Marshall Fund of the United States as an "NGO observer" -- those of you who have read my scholarly work on globalization can drink in the rich ironies of that designation pour moi.

    Anyway, while I won't have oodles of free time, I might have the occasional hour or two off. So I'm asking you, good readers, to fill me in on what must be seen and done in Hong Kong, or even Shenzen. Sure, the New York Times' Keith Bradsher provides some useful tips, but I have every confidence that the collective intelligence of readers can improve on Bradsher's advice.

    UPDATE: Hmmm.... Justine Lau and Frances Williams have a report in the Financial Times implicitly suggesting that the NGO protestors might get a bit unruly:

    Peter Yam, the police director of operations, said he expected at least three large demonstrations to take place, each of which could draw as many as 10,000 people.

    “We have measures to deal with all scenarios. We will not allow anyone to disrupt the conference, threaten the personal safety of others, cause damage to property, or cause serious disruption of traffic,” said Mr Yam, who said 9,000 officers, or one-third of the force, would be deployed.

    In comparison, fewer than 800 police were mobilised on Sunday when 250,000 marched for democracy in Hong Kong.

    posted by Dan at 10:06 PM | Comments (11) | Trackbacks (0)

    Do the insurgents really want the U.S. to withdraw?

    Time's Michael Ware has a long profile of the Iraqi insurgency and U.S. strategies to cope with it. The single most depressing sentence: "After 31 months of fighting in Iraq, the U.S. still can't say for sure whom it is up against."

    The basic thrust of the article is that the U.S. believes that a fair amount of the insurgency consists of "Sunni rejectionists," an odd word choice given that they are nevertheless interested in participating:

    The vast majority of those groups fall into a category the military dubiously refers to as Sunni "rejectionists." Mostly Baathists, nationalists and Iraqi Islamists, they oppose the occupation and any Baghdad government dominated by Iraqis sheltered from Saddam by foreign-intelligence agencies, such as Iran's or the U.S.'s. But they don't oppose democracy in Iraq. Many voted in the Oct. 15 constitutional referendum and have plans to participate in the Dec. 15 election. Few see a contradiction between voting and continuing to battle U.S. forces. "I voted in the referendum, and I'm still fighting, and everybody in my organization did the same," says Abu Marwan, the Army of Mohammed commander. "This is two-track war--bullets and the ballot. They are not mutually exclusive."
    Here's the most revealing paragraph:
    Evidence of shifts within the insurgency in some ways presents the U.S. with its best opportunity since the occupation began to counter parts of the Sunni resistance. Adopting the long-standing attitudes of secular Baathists, some Sunni leaders tell TIME they have lost patience with al-Zarqawi and would consider cutting a political deal with the U.S. to isolate the jihadis. "If the Americans evidenced good intent and a timetable [there's that word again--DD] for withdrawal we feel is genuine, we will stand up against al-Zarqawi," says Abdul Salam al-Qubaisi, spokesman for the Association of Muslim Scholars. "We already stood up against him on the Shi'ite issue, and if he doesn't follow us, it will be a bad path for him." Baathist insurgent leader Abu Yousif, who has met with U.S. intelligence officers, says, "The insurgency is looking for a political outlet--once we have that, we could control al-Qaeda."
    Color me skeptical about these assertions, for one simple reason -- the Sunnis will be the big losers when/if the United States were to withdraw. It would be irrational of them to give up the extralegal strategy of insurgency, precisely because such a tactic has garnered them influence beyond their number to date.

    Assume the withdrawal goes well. in any electoral democracy, the Sunnis will lose because they are vastly outnumbered by the Shia and the Kurds. Now assume the withdrawal goes poorly -- the insurgents will face a Shia majority pefectly willing to use extralegal means to ensure that they control the levers of power. Either way, the insurgents are better off right now than they will be when the Americans leave.

    The one possibility of a U.S. withdrawal contributing to the Sunnis laying down their arms is if there's some kind of grand bargain behind the scenes in which the Shiite parties basically pledge to keep their militias from engaging in any kind of a pogrom -- but if I was Sunni, I'd take my chances playing cat-and-mouse with the U.S. military instead. Indeed, my strategy would be not to engage with U.S. forces at all, but do as much damage to Shia-predominant military units as possible.

    [What about the possibility that Iraqis are now in the mood to vote for secular, non-sectarian parties?--ed. Again, great for the Sunnis, if true -- but the disturbing thing about both the Time piece and the Christian Science Monitor story linked above is that neither of them have any hard data -- just assertions by the reporter. Also remember that the supposed beneficiary of this secular trend -- former PM Iyad Allawi -- just got pelted with shoes in Najaf.]

    posted by Dan at 09:45 AM | Comments (17) | Trackbacks (0)

    Sunday, December 4, 2005

    It's good to look at the big picture every once in a while
    I've blogged previously about the fact that there has been a secular trend in the world towards reduced interstate and intrastate violence -- i.e., there's a lot less war going on. Oxblog links to a new endeavour -- the Human Security Report, which is funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and the governments of Canada, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, and the U.K. The overview is chock-full of heart-warming statistics:
  • The number of genocides and politicides plummeted by 80% between 1988 and 2001.
  • The number of armed conflicts around the world has declined by more than 40% since the early 1990s.
  • International crises, often harbingers of war, declined by more than 70% between 1981 and 2001.
  • The number of refugees dropped by some 45% between 1992 and 2003, as more and more wars came toan end.
  • The period since the end of World War II is the longest interval of uninterrupted peace between the major powers in hundreds of years.
  • The number of actual and attempted military coups has been declining for more than 40 years. In 1963 there were 25 coups and attempted coups around the world, the highest number in the post–World War II period. In 2004 there were only 10 coup attempts--a 60% decline. All of them failed. [I've touched on this point before as well--DD.]
  • [So, is there any bad news?--ed.] Sure -- the rate of reported rapes has more than doubled in the past eight years. [Couldn't that also be, in an odd way, a good thing? Rapes might not be more frequent so much as that they are now reported, which implies a greater acceptance of the notion of rape as acrime?--ed.] The optimist in me would like to agree with this, but the fact that the doubling has taken place in the last seven years makes me very suspicious. One would assume that improved reporting should lead to a slow secular increase (which is the long-term trend) rather than the current spike. Unless a big country like China or India suddenly improved its data collection, that spike is definitely worrisome. UPDATE: Thanks to Kevin Drum for the link. Some of the commenters are suggesting that this peaceful trend ended in 2001. I'm happy to report that this is not true -- it's just that some of the data listed above ended in 2001. Overall, let me quote from Gregg Easterbrook's TNR essay on this subject from six months ago:
    Everyone agrees that the worst moment for human conflict was World War II; but how to rank, say, the current separatist fighting in Indonesia versus, say, the Algerian war of independence is more speculative. Nevertheless, the Peace and Conflict studies name 1991 as the peak post-World War II year for totality of global fighting, giving that year a ranking of 179 on a scale that rates the extent and destructiveness of combat. By 2000, in spite of war in the Balkans and genocide in Rwanda, the number had fallen to 97; by 2002 to 81; and, at the end of 2004, it stood at 65. This suggests the extent and intensity of global combat is now less than half what it was 15 years ago.
    posted by Dan at 12:04 AM | Comments (18) | Trackbacks (0)

    Saturday, December 3, 2005

    Kadima is doomed. Doomed, doomed, doomed, doomed, doomed.

    I've been remiss in not blogging about Israel, because I do so love the roiling comments section such posts generate. However, I have only one thing to say about Shimon Peres' decision to leave the Labor party and join Ariel Sharon's brand-spanking new Kadima Party -- it can only mean Kadima is doomed to implode.

    Why do I say this? Because the one constant in Israeli politics is that Shimon Peres might be the single-worst politician in the brief history of the Israeli state. By this I don't mean Peres is a bad policymaker or leader -- I mean the man couldn't win an election to save his life. This is a guy who couldn't beat Mr. anti-charisma, Yitzhak Shamir. He couldn't beat Bibi Netanyahu after Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish zealot.

    If Peres keeps his mouth shut and goes into a bunker until the election is over, maybe Kadima has a chance. But unless the focus is completely on Ariel Sharon, Kadima will have a very short half-life.

    UPDATE: Omri Ceren has an Israeli politics blogg, Mere Rhetoric, that is worth checking out. He's more optimstic about Peres than I am.

    posted by Dan at 01:13 AM | Comments (8) | Trackbacks (0)

    Friday, December 2, 2005

    Let's talk about trade

    I have an article in the latest issue of The American Interest on American attitudes about international trade. It's called "Trade Talk."

    As the opening suggests, I'm not optimistic:

    American perceptions about international trade have changed dramatically in the past two decades. Presidents can no longer craft positions on international trade issuesforeign economic policy in a vacuum. Trade now intersects with other highly politicized issues, ranging from the war on terror to environmental protection to bilateral relations with China. Old issues such as the trade deficit and new issues such as offshore outsourcing have made a liberal trade policy one of the most difficult political sells inside the Beltway.

    Indeed, shifts in domestic attitudes have created the least hospitable environment for trade liberalization in recent memory. Unfortunately, this inhospitable environment has arisen at a time when trade is more vital to the U.S. economy than ever. The challenge for this President and for those who succeed him will be to reinvigorate U.S. trade policies despite the current public mood. In short, it is the challenge to lead.

    Alas, the rest of it is behind a subscription firewall. But go subscribe -- or buy this issue from anewsstand -- and then check it out.

    posted by Dan at 12:16 PM | Comments (9) | Trackbacks (0)

    The gold bug variations

    Despite its romantic allure, gold has historically been a pretty lousy investment. Since the invention of interest-bearing assets portfolio diversification, there is very little financial incentive to hold large amounts of gold. The one exception to this rule, however, is when it seems like high inflation is imminent at the same time that everything else in the global political economy going to hell in a handbasket. The last great gold rush -- when it hit $850 in 1980 -- came at a time of double-digit inflation in the U.S., a stagnant global economy, and geopolitical instability.

    Gold appears to have risen in value in recent months and years -- is this a sign of the current global political economy crashing and burning? The Economist's opinion page says I should relax:

    Nothing swells the breast so much as the thought that you have been proved right at last. After riding high at the start of the 1980s, gold bugs had a miserable couple of decades. The price declined relentlessly, mocking their credo that the security of the financial system ultimately depends upon the yellow metal. Lately, though, the faithful have enjoyed their reward. In the past five years the price of gold has doubled. This week in Asian trading it briefly surpassed $500 a troy ounce—a level last breached in 1987. You can almost feel the bugs' excitement as the message sinks in: gold is back.

    This being gold, the resurgence has brought forth all manner of alarming prophecies. The price is an omen of rampant inflation; bonds are doomed; the dollar is about to fall prey to the United States' reckless deficits; the euro will shortly be revealed as a worthless creation of bureaucrats.

    The world is an unpredictable place. But, with the possible exception of a fall in the dollar, not much of the above catalogue of doom looks likely; and none of it has much to do with gold's good run. The dull truth is much less bullish for gold. Investors have put money into a wide range of metals, and precious metals' prices, including gold's, have risen with the base. Meanwhile, gold remains fundamentally unattractive. It yields nothing and central banks are sitting on vaultfuls of the stuff that they want eventually to sell. Gold bugs hope that $500 is the threshold at which mainstream investors will start once again to take an interest in the metal. Caveat emptor.

    So do I feel better? Yes and no. While the Economist is correct about gold in particular, I'm more concerned about the fact that "investors have put money into a wide range of metals." This could be because China's growing demand for raw materials has driven up the price of all commodities. But it could also be because risk-averse investors have figured out that they can buy something besides gold as a hedge against high inflation and political instability.

    I strongly suspect that Chinese economic growth is the primary driver, because U.S. inflation right now is much lower than it was in 1980. On the other hand, a lot more foreigners hold dollars than they did in 1980, and the difficulty of predicting when the dollar will start to fall has me wondering if something else is going on.


    posted by Dan at 12:26 AM | Comments (10) | Trackbacks (0)

    Thursday, December 1, 2005

    Your must-read blog post of the day

    Scott Eric Kaufman, "My Morning: A Play in One Uncomfortable Act."

    My only suggestion would have been to have inserted the word "unconsummated" somewhere in the title.

    posted by Dan at 11:09 AM | Comments (6) | Trackbacks (0)

    Wal-Mart is good for the poor

    That's the basic conclusion of Jason Furman's essay "Wal-Mart: A Progressive Success Story" posted at the Center for American Progress website:

    Productivity is the principal driver of economic progress. It is the only force that can make everyone better off: workers, consumers, and owners of capital. Wal-Mart has indisputably made a tremendous contribution to productivity. From its sophisticated inventory systems to its pricing innovations, Wal-Mart has blazed a path that numerous other retailers are now following, many of them vigorously competing with Wal-Mart. Today, Wal-Mart is the largest private employer in the country, the largest grocery store in the country, and the third largest pharmacy. Eight in ten Americans shop at Wal-Mart.

    There is little dispute that Wal-Mart’s price reductions have benefited the 120 million American workers employed outside of the retail sector. Plausible estimates of the magnitude of the savings from Wal-Mart are enormous – a total of $263 billion in 2004, or $2,329 per household. Even if you grant that Wal-Mart hurts workers in the retail sector – and the evidence for this is far from clear – the magnitude of any potential harm is small in comparison. One
    study, for example, found that the “Wal-Mart effect” lowered retail wages by $4.7 billion in 2000.

    But Wal-Mart, like other retailers and employers of less-skilled workers, does not pay enough for a family to live the dignified life Americans have come to expect and demand. That is where a second progressive success story comes in: the transformation of our social safety net from a support for the indigent to a system to that makes work pay. In the 1990s, President Clinton fought for expansions in support for low-income workers, including a more generous Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and efforts to ensure that children did not lose their Medicaid if their parents took a low-paid job. The bulk of the benefits of these expansions go to the workers that receive them, not to the corporations that employ them.

    Attempts to limit the spread of Wal-Mart and similar “big box” stores do not just limit the benefits of lower prices to moderate-income consumers, they also limit the job opportunities that Wal-Mart and other retailers provide. More puzzling is that some progressives have described Medicaid, food stamps, the EITC, and public housing assistance as “corporate welfare.” The right response to Wal-Mart is not to scale back these programs but to expand them in order to fulfill the goal of making work pay.

    Read the whole thing. One quick cavil -- while Clinton deserves credit for the EITC's passage, I've always thought of the idea behind it as a conservative one.

    Furman's analysis is of a piece with Global Insight's study of Wal-Mart's effect on the U.S. economy that was released last month:

    Global Insight reviewed a wide range of previous studies that indicated that the efficiencies that Wal-Mart has fostered in the retail sector have led to lower prices for the U.S. consumer. These results were supported by statistical analysis which found that the expansion of Wal-Mart over the 1985 to 2004 period can be associated with a cumulative decline of 9.1% in food-at-home prices, a 4.2% decline in commodities (goods) prices, and a 3.1% decline in overall consumer prices as measured by the Consumer Price Index-All Items, which includes both goods and services.

    The main driver of this impact was a 0.75% improvement in the overall efficiency of the economy. Increased capital intensity and lower import prices were secondary drivers. The 3.1% decline in the price level was partially offset by a 2.2% decline in nominal wages, so that the net effect was to increase real disposable income by 0.9% by 2004.

    To be fair, Global Insight also invited outside papers, some of which are more critical of the Wal-Mart effect.

    Needless to say, having John Kerry's principal economic advisor issue such a pronouncement has roiled other progressives. Matthew Yglesias has posted what looks like the most honest reply -- which is that the danger of Wal-Mart to progressives is not a question of economics but but politics. If Wal-Mart helps to weaken the power of unions, then it degrades one of the chief organzational pillars of the left.

    posted by Dan at 10:31 AM | Comments (35) | Trackbacks (0)