Saturday, August 13, 2005

Institutional Advocacy

My thanks to Dan, first of all, for turning his blog over to me this week. There are hundreds of bloggers on the Web today discussing politics and policy issues, but people looking to learn something new, to have the essentials of complex issues clarified or just to read good writing are regularly rewarded by only a few. Dan has been one of those for almost three years now (it will be three years next month), which considering the many other demands on his time is just remarkable.

In a polity grown used to overheated rhetoric it takes a major effort to step so far over the line of propriety that one's own allies object. The National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) made such an effort this week with its television ad charging that John Roberts had been a patron of abortion clinic bombers in the 1990s. The New York Times today asked that NARAL apologize; The Washington Post called the ad a "smear." Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Arlen Specter said NARAL's ad was"...blatantly untrue and unfair." Mildly conservative but pro-choice John Tierney now describes himself as "pro-choice but anti-NARAL."

Well, there's one blow struck for civility: NARAL pulled the ad. But on NARAL's own web site, targeted at its fundraising base, the message hasn't changed at all:

"Roberts argued in support of the violent clinic protesters at Operation Rescue who have tried to block women's access to basic health care services with bombs and threats of murder."


"At the time, Roberts ignored widespread clinic violence and please [sic] from women and state law enforcement."

NARAL is an experienced and competent lobbying organization; its leadership knows it will probably lose the confirmation battle over Roberts. Why the vitriol? Sen. Specter's August 11 letter to NARAL head Nancy Keenan nails the issue in one sentence:

"I have...previously raised questions about using Supreme Court nominations as fundraising events without appropriate regard for the subject matter involved."

The playing to the activist base that Tierney and other commentators criticize as a political tactic is not primarily that. It is instead a fundraising tactic; NARAL used, and continues to use, violent rhetoric to its most committed (or most gullible) supporters, seeking not votes against John Roberts but money for itself.

There are dozens of institutions in Washington doing the same thing. If an issue that can be used as a hook for fundraising doesn't exist, one can be invented. It isn't enough for institutional advocates to be effective; they also have to look busy. An example of this phenomenon in action is legislation passed last year in the House striking down gun laws in the District of Columbia. The institutional advocate behind this is, of course, the National Rifle Association, which has been successful enough on its big issues that it now has to keep the money rolling in by conjuring up new mortal threats to gun rights, in this case local laws and ordinances that have been in place since 1976.

Media coverage of hot-button issues usually skirts this aspect of them. There may not be a good way for a reporter to ask a source who works for one of Washington's institutional advocates whether his employer is only taking a position on some bill or nomination to pay for a new building or a bonus for the senior management. Elected officials have little interest in raising the subject either; facing low-turnout elections in which interest group money and activist voter turnout can be decisive, Senators and members of Congress would have powerful incentives to ignore the self-interest behind institutional advocacy even if they had strong views of their own about the issues in question. And more often than not, they don't.

The easy thing to do is to take institutional advocacy at face value, something most observers of Washington learned long ago is often a mistake with respect to advocacy from business, labor groups or other organized interests with a stake in legislation and government policy. Controversy itself is the stake for institutional advocates, many of which may indeed have other reasons for the positions they take, but all of which need a certain level of alarm, hostility and bitterness in Washington in order to prosper and grow.

posted by Joseph Britt at 01:56 PM | Comments (8)

Friday, August 12, 2005

Incentives do matter -- the oil edition

With oil pushing $67 a barrel, one might ask what the effect has been on the U.S. economy. The aggregate answer would seem to be a surprising "not much" -- pergaps because, as in the seventies, petrodollars are being recycled back into the U.S. economy.

Brad Setser, however, does observe one subtle change in oil imports from June's trade data:

The US -- obviously - is spending a lot more to import oil. The US oil import bill in the first half of 2005 was about $29 billion more than the US oil import bill in the first half of 2004. All told, I expect the US to spend about $57 b more on imported oil in 2005 than in 2004.

The story is a bit different if you look at the amount of oil the US imports, not how much the US pays for it. Oil import volumes grew by 7.3% in 2003, and 5.7% in 2004. The pace of increase so far this year. Only 2.3%. Higher prices are having an impact.

Brad also has some good things to say about U.S. export performance.

Readers are invited to speculate whether oil at, say $70 a barrel, would have stagflationary effects.

posted by Dan at 04:12 PM | Comments (13) | Trackbacks (0)

"I was just made by the Presbyterian Church"

You'll just have to click here to find out the meaning of the post title.

It reminds me of an episode from a criminally underrated television series, News Radio. In the "Super Karate Monkey Death Car" episode, Jimmy James needs to read his own autobiography after it was translated into Japanese and then re-translated into English.

And you at home can play this game too!! Just go to Alta Vista's Babelfish page, pick a favorite piece of dialogue, translate it and then retranslate it.

posted by Dan at 12:10 AM | Comments (14) | Trackbacks (1)

Thursday, August 11, 2005

When negotiations suck eggs....

Time magazine's Romesh Ratnesar has a long story on Condoleezza Rice and her growing foreign policy clout:

Rice has wrested control over the tone and direction of U.S. foreign policy away from war-cabinet hard-liners, curbing their unilateralist bluster. She persuaded President George W. Bush to support negotiations with North Korea and Iran over their nuclear programs, though both countries have balked at offers from the U.S. and its allies. In the process, she has cemented her status as the President's most trusted lieutenant, a relationship that makes her the most influential Secretary of State in more than a decade.

For Ivo Daalder, this turn to negotiations is all to the good -- thought that's not because they're guaranteed to succeed:

The purpose of negotiations in these kinds of situations is really two-fold: to try to resolve the issue through a mutual give-and-take and arrive at an outcome that both parties see as preferable to the status quo or, failing that, to demonstrate that you are looking for such an outcome and thus place the onus for failure squarely on the other side.

The main reason why Rice may have been able to convince Bush and Cheney that a demonstrable commitment to negotiations was now necessary is that the North had succeeded in isolating us rather than themselves. For now, the tables have turned -- opening up the possibility that the North reassesses the value of giving in or, at the very least, making clear that they rather than we are to be blamed if negotiations fail. In the latter case, we will have laid the for gaining support for a more coercive strategy, should that be desirable.

This all sounds eminently sensible.... except for a one teensy little problem -- what happens if our allies shift their position during the negotiations? Both the Iran and North Korea cases require active consultation and coordination with allies that might, just might, change their minds about what constitutes unacceptable behavior.

David Adesnik points out that with regard to Iran, even the Washington Post's editorial team thinks this:

the editors of the Post argue that

The experience of letting the Europeans do it their way, offering trade and economic incentives before bringing in sanctions or making any military threats, has been enormously important...Now, any steps taken to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons will have international credibility.

Finally, the Post adds a caveat

What remains to be seen is whether the Europeans will come through, as they have promised they would, with a tough-minded push for sanctions.

Consider, for a moment, the tension between those last two statements. What if the Europeans don't follow through? If, at that point, we strike out on our own, will we no longer have "international credibility"? In other words, is the price of credibility that we always follow the European lead?

With regard to North Korea, there is the tricky problem that South Korea has now decided to back North Korea's demands for a peaceful nuclear program. This is an logical outcome of South Korea's sunshine policy -- a problem that I mentioned two years ago.

Won Joon Choe and Jack Kim explain in the Christian Science Monitor why the South Koreans have been acting in such a peculiar manner:

Many South Koreans no longer see North Korea as a threat. Instead of a mortal enemy, North Korea has become transmogrified into a sympathetic brother in the South Korean imagination.

This transmogrification is mainly government-induced. Since the election of the longtime dissident Kim Dae Jung to the presidency in 1997, Seoul has pursued the "Sunshine Policy" - a policy designed to appease Pyongyang's murderous regime through massive economic bribery.

To sell this policy to a skeptical electorate, Kim spearheaded a comprehensive propaganda campaign to reconstruct the South's image of the North. This campaign included government censorship and intimidation of those who would criticize North Korea. As a result of this ongoing campaign, South Koreans are now increasingly kept in the dark about the true nature of Pyongyang's gulag state.

Even more troubling, however, is Seoul's belief that it may actually benefit from the North Korean nukes....

These differences between Washington and Seoul regarding Pyongyang's nukes will continue to frustrate the Bush administration's attempt to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis. While it is unlikely that Pyongyang would give up its nukes without a credible threat of military action, the current leftist government in Seoul, headed by Kim Dae Jung's successor Roh Moo Hyun, would never back a military solution. Given that Seoul bankrolls Pyongyang, it would also be difficult for the US to impose workable economic sanctions. Even the Chinese, whose influence the Bush administration has come to rely on as the last best hope, have complained that Seoul's appeasement emboldens Pyongyang and renders it less amenable to Beijing's pressure. (emphasis added)

So, contrary to Daalder, there is another possible outcome from negotiations besides a fair settlement and a shifting of blame -- the possibility that our allies back down leaving the U.S. in the lurch.

[So you're saying screw negotiations, right?--ed.] Alas, no -- for the North Korean case in particular, negotiations are a lousy, rotten option -- until you consider the alternatives -- which Fred Kaplan did last month in Slate:

In the case of the United States, the Bush administration's top national security officials—Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and President George W. Bush himself—just didn't want an accord with North Korea, didn't want even to sit down and talk. Kim Jong-il is an evil dictator; he'd broken an agreement by resuming his nuclear program; merely negotiating with him would be rewarding him for bad behavior; signing a treaty with him would legitimize and perpetuate his reign. Bush's policy in the first term was to wait for Kim's regime to collapse and, in the meantime, to take a look at the war plans.

Then three things happened. First, Kim's regime didn't collapse. Cheney tried to convince the Chinese to cut off aid, which might have done the trick; but they didn't want millions of North Korean refugees to pour across their borders. Second, the Joint Chiefs told President Bush that the war plans were too risky; nobody knew where all the targets were, and Kim Jong-il had thousands of artillery rockets a few minutes away from Seoul; if he retaliated, hundreds of thousands of South Koreans could die. Besides, the South Korean government announced that it would not endorse—or allow its territory to be used for—a U.S. airstrike or invasion.

In other words, "regime change" wasn't happening, and war didn't look like a real option.

So my point is this -- the U.S. is favoring negotiations right now not because they're such an alluring alternative -- it's because given our resource constraints and the countries we are dealing with, the negotiation option is the best of a rotten set of alternatives.

posted by Dan at 09:48 AM | Comments (31) | Trackbacks (1)

I've got my red phone... what about you?

Earlier this week, India and Pakistan announced confidence-building measures tp prevent nuclear war, which include "hotlines between their foreign secretaries and director generals of military operations next month to prevent misunderstandings and reduce risks of mishaps." according to Pakistan's Daily Times.

Yesterday, North Korea and South Korea announced that theu had "successfully tested a hotline on Wednesday aimed at helping avoid naval confrontations in the Yellow Sea by allowing direct contact between the two militaries," according to Reuters.

Quick, before hotlines jump the shark, readers are strongly encouraged to suggest the next pair of enduring rivals that should acquire a hotline.... and no, Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchie do not count.

posted by Dan at 12:29 AM | Comments (10) | Trackbacks (1)

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

A very important post about.... my early gender confusion

Focus on the Family's Focus on the Child has ever so helpfully set up a web site entitled "Is My Child Becoming Homosexual?" There are some very useful tips for parents:

Evidences of gender confusion or doubt in boys ages 5 to 11 may include:

1. A strong feeling that they are “different” from other boys.

2. A tendency to cry easily, be less athletic, and dislike the roughhousing that other boys enjoy.

3. A persistent preference to play female roles in make-believe play.

4. A strong preference to spend time in the company of girls and participate in their games and other pastimes.

5. A susceptibility to be bullied by other boys, who may tease them unmercifully and call them “queer,” “fag” and “gay.”

6. A tendency to walk, talk, dress and even “think” effeminately.

7. A repeatedly stated desire to be — or insistence that he is — a girl.

Well, as a child, I certainly suffered from 1, 2, 4, 5, and maybe 6 (Depends how you define "think effeminately").

If you'll excuse me, I have to go tell my wife and children about my latent homosexual qualities and accompanying gender confusion. I fear that my son will probably cry and feel different.

Readers, talk amongst yourselves -- in particular, how boys who like the "the roughhousing that other boys enjoy" could never be gay.

Hat tip to Giblets at Fafblog, who provides additional tips for detecting future homosexuals in our nation's children:

Dunk your son into a deep pool of water. If he floats to the top, he is full of buoyant gaymotrons (identified by physicists as the gay particle) and therefore gay. If he sinks to the bottom and drowns, he is a poor swimmer and unathletic and therefore gay. If he begins to sink and then just sorta hangs there, the water is gay.

UPDATE: Another topic for discussion -- did this historical character display gender confusion as well?

posted by Dan at 04:59 PM | Comments (14) | Trackbacks (3)

The Chinese step closer to currency transparency

That's the message contained in this Financial Times report:

China stepped up the pace of its effort to liberalise its currency regime, allowing more financial institutions and companies to trade foreign currencies in the spot market and introducing renminbi forward contracts and swaps into the onshore interbank market.

The announcement follows the landmark move by the central bank three weeks ago to scrap the renminbi’s decade-long peg to the US dollar, and is in line with Beijing’s pledge to gradually introduce broader currency reform.

It also coincides with a speech by Zhou Xiaochuan, the central bank governor, who was reported by several news agencies to have revealed more details of the make-up of the currency basket to which the renminbi is referenced after it was de-pegged from the US dollar.

The US dollar, the Japanese yen, the euro, and the South Korean won are the dominant currencies in the basket, news agencies quoted Mr Zhou as saying in Shanghai. The basket also includes Singapore dollar, sterling pound, the Malaysian ringgit, the Russian rouble, the Australian dollar, the Thai baht and the Canadian dollar, the reports said.

Click here to read Zhou Xiaochuan's speech.

UPDATE: This April 2005 World Economy paper by Michael Funke and Jörg Rahn suggests that even if the renminbi were allowed to float, its appreciation would be far less than many believe.

posted by Dan at 02:05 PM | Comments (2) | Trackbacks (3)

Ping away!!

For the last few weeks the trackback feature on the blog has been out of order. My apologies -- it should be working now.

posted by Dan at 10:55 AM | Trackbacks (0)

Tuesday, August 9, 2005

When capital and labor are substitutes

Keith Bradsher has an interesting piece in the New York Times on GM's recent success producing and selling cars in China. The interesting fact is the way in which China's relative abundance of labor altered GM's capital investment:

In this obscure corner of southern China, General Motors seems to have hit on a hot new formula: $5,000 minivans that get 43 miles to the gallon in city driving. That combination of advantages has captivated Chinese buyers, propelling G.M. into the leading spot in this nascent car market....

To build the cars, G.M. helped gut and rebuild a former tractor factory in ways that could become a model for automobile production in China for years to come.

Long white halls erected in 1958 during Mao's Great Leap Forward still stand here, the paint peeling in places, the wood window frames warped and the windowpanes cracked and broken. Inside, however, is a factory that combines old and new management techniques. Small, plastic racks of parts delivered several times or more a day have replaced large bins of parts delivered to the assembly line in big shipments every few days. This way, the factory can keep low inventories and order quick design changes, if necessary, from nearby suppliers.

The assembly process has only one robot, for sealing windshields, relying mostly on workers earning $60 a month, above average for this impoverished region. That comes after G.M.'s experience in Shanghai, where it installed four dozen robots for its first assembly line only to find them much costlier and less flexible than people; G.M.'s second assembly line there was built with only four robots.

"Low cost doesn't just mean low wages, it means low investment," Mr. [Stephen] Small [the G.M.-appointed chief financial officer of the joint venture] said.

Worker safety in most Chinese factories is abysmal by Western standards. But workers at the factory here wear safety glasses, and the equipment has automatic cutoffs to prevent workers from losing fingers.

The depressing fact is that, naturally, GM is punishing the guy that came up with the process and product ideas behind the minivan in the first place:

Their development was led by an American, Philip F. Murtaugh, a native of Ohio and a maverick executive who was willing to zig while the rest of G.M. was zagging. Mr. Murtaugh was able to create in China the kind of innovative environment that G.M. has struggled for decades to achieve in its American operations. But whether G.M. can duplicate elsewhere its achievements in China or even keep its pace here is unclear.

In what may be a telling sign of the corporate culture at G.M., Mr. Murtaugh's success in China led not to promotion but to his departure from the company. G.M. declined to discuss personnel matters, but both it and Mr. Murtaugh said he resigned and was not dismissed.

A soft-spoken man in a company known for autocratic leaders, Mr. Murtaugh ran the China operations for more than nine years from his base in Shanghai, repeatedly making some of the best calls in the industry. Now he finds himself unemployed and living in a small community in rural Kentucky.

His resignation in March, at the age of 49, came shortly after senior company executives reorganized management to give more power to Detroit executives to oversee design, engineering and various manufacturing disciplines all over the world, including operations in China.

In a world where local knowledge about consumer demand and the most efficient way to mix factor endowments are important, the GM decision to centralize its management structure seems particularly brain-dead.

Read the whole piece.

UPDATE: A 2003 McKinsey Quarterly essay by Vivek Agrawal, Diana Farrell, and Jaana K. Remes touches on this concept of reorganizing production processes to exploit local factor endowments. The auto sector in China is one example:

Certain automotive original-equipment manufacturers (OEMs) in China use robots for only 30 percent of the welding in car assembly, as compared with 90 percent or more in US or European operations. (BMW’s plant in South Africa employs the same line of attack.) In India, domestic car companies have reduced the need for automation throughout the manufacturing process: they use more manual labor to load and change dies in pressing, body welding, materials handling, and other functions—while suffering no discernible loss of quality in the finished product. In this way, these companies manage to cut their assembly costs by 4 to 5 percent or even more and save themselves millions of dollars annually.

Ultimately, companies might completely redesign the sequence in which tasks are performed, in order to leverage the opportunities above more fully. Consider the simple example of a call-center agent who manages customer accounts. In high-wage countries, each customer call is routed to an agent who listens to the request, opens up a computer database, and updates the account in real time. Neither the computer nor the telephone is used efficiently, since the agent is either talking or typing but not both.

Offshore, an agent equipped with only a telephone could write the customer request by hand into a tracking log and move on to the next call. Telecom costs are reduced because the agent spends less time on calls and customers less time on hold. Another agent, working at a computer station used around the clock, could enter the information into the database. While the new process requires more agents to handle requests, expensive computer hardware and software and telephone lines are used more intensively. Added wages are more than offset by savings on computers, software licenses, and telephone connections (Exhibit 4). The economics of an Indian call center suggest that this simple change could actually boost current profit margins for offshoring vendors by as much as 50 percent.

These examples point to a big warning sign that should be put on any news story about job creation in offshored sectors in low wage countries:


posted by Dan at 11:58 PM | Comments (5) | Trackbacks (0)

Your new blog for the day

Through rigorous market surveys, the hard working staff here at knows that its readership wants to find blogs discussing foreign aid and economic development. [Well, that and the occasional mention of Salma Hayek--ed]

Without further ado, click over to Private Sector Development Blog, an inelegantly-named but interesting read by Tim Harford and Pablo Halkyard, two economists at the World Bank's International Finance Corporation (that's the bank with the Bank that lends to private sector entities).

This post links to a new study on health care in India that concludes:

[T]he gap between what doctors do and what they know responds to incentives: Doctors in the fee-for-service private sector are closer in practice to their knowledge frontier than those in the fixed-salary public sector. Under-qualified private sector doctors, even though they know less, provide better care on average than their better-qualified counterparts in the public sector. These results indicate that to improve medical services, at least for poor people, there should be greater emphasis on changing the incentives of public providers rather than increasing provider competence through training.

Go check out the blog.

posted by Dan at 05:08 PM | Comments (5) | Trackbacks (0)

Is there a grand compromise on immigration?

Tamar Jacoby thinks the answer is yes. She explains why in the Weekly Standard:

[E]ven with politicians as diverse as President Bush, House Speaker Dennis Hastert, and Senators Kyl, Cornyn, McCain, and Edward Kennedy weighing in--there is much more consensus on immigration than is generally recognized.

We're not quite at the point yet where, as is said about the Israeli-Palestinian problem, "everyone knows what the solution is--the only difficulty is getting there." But there is increasing agreement about the contours of the problem and even about critical elements of the solution.

The emerging consensus starts with a shared grasp not just that the system is broken, but also why its breakdown is unacceptable to Americans: because of what it means for the rule of law and for our national security.

Gone are the days when one side in the debate was concerned about immigrants and the other about angry native-born voters--when one side wanted expansive annual quotas and the other wanted tighter control over the system. Today, reformers as different as Kyl and Kennedy (cosponsor of the McCain legislation) recognize that robust immigration is a boon to the U.S. economy, but that we must construct a system--a more regulated, orderly system--that permits foreign workers to enter the country in a lawful manner. Both sides recognize that we need immigrants and the rule of law--that we need foreign workers, but also control. The war on terrorism demands this better control, and so, increasingly, does the public. From the Minutemen volunteers on the Arizona border to angry suburbanites in Herndon, Virginia, and on Long Island, voters are expressing frustration, and lawmakers in both parties know they must respond.

Second, and even more encouraging, politicians as far apart as the president and Senator Kennedy grasp the paradoxical nature of the remedy: namely, that the best way to deliver control is not, as many reflexively think, to crack down harder, but rather to expand the channels through which immigrant workers can enter the country legally. This consensus is reflected in the competing bills in the Senate, and it is at the heart of the White House's position (a position reiterated in recent weeks in a series of private meetings with legislators). All of the current reform proposals rest on two central pillars: a guest worker program and much tougher enforcement. (emphasis added)

There might be a consensus at the elite level, but I'm very skeptical that this consensus extends down to the populace. Click here for why I'm skeptical.

The interesting question is if Jacoby is correct, whether public hostility would derail any proposed reform.

posted by Dan at 01:18 AM | Comments (32) | Trackbacks (0)

Monday, August 8, 2005

Will Singapore remain the outlier?

Whenever people start talking about the interrelationships between regime type, the rule of law, economic development, and political corruption, the outlier is always Singapore.

Think that economic development inexorably leads to freedom of the press? Hello, meet Singapore.

Think that authoritarianism automatically leads to corruption? Have you met Singapore?

Think that no government can plug its country into the Internet while still retaining a vast web of censorship? Yes, yes, that is Singapore over there in the corner giving you the raspberry.

[So what do political scientists say whenever the Singapore is brought up as the counterexample to the general rule?--ed.] There are a few options available:

OPTION #1: "Oh, you say a small city-state violates my covering law? I say 'feh.' All statistical relationships will have outliers. The general observation still holds."

OPTION #2: "Unless Lee Kuan Yew can be cloned, this is a unique example of political leadership that doesn't generalize beyond the borders of Singapore."

OPTION #3: "Oh, Singapore won't remain an exception for long. A one party state cannot be combined with information technology and a free market and live to tell the tale. You just wait.... yes, you wait right over there in the corner."

OPTION #4: "Singapore is merely the exemplar to demonstrate that these kind of feel-good generalizations break down when applied outside of OECD countries. Deal with it."

Some of these options are not mutually exclusive.

My thought piece on information technology and regime type takes some steps towards the third position. So I'm pleased to see that Associated Press reporter En-Lai Yeoh is also moving in that direction:

Singaporeans are seeing "Sex and the City" on TV. Actors may utter four-letter words on stage. Opposition parties can gather without police permission--as long as they do it indoors.

Tiny and famously disciplined Singapore is turning 40 on Tuesday, and continuing to lighten up. Gone are the days when chewing gum and long hair were banned. Singaporeans are even being allowed to bungee-jump and dance on bar tables.

In April, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong explained: "We risk being relegated to the second league if we rely only on past achievements. We must continue to reinvent ourselves."

Political analyst Ho Khai Leong of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies says the ruling People's Action Party is being pragmatic without relaxing its grip on power over the island and its 4.2 million citizens.

"It can't remain authoritarian when globalization is on your doorstep," he said. "There is a dynamic to the desire to be more open."....

The Internet puts the government in a quandary. It knows the future depends on an Internet-savvy public but recognizes the Web's power to bypass state-controlled media and foment its own kind of people power.

The Internet effect was evident in June, when an online petition became a driving force behind the ouster of the head of the largest government-backed charity, the National Kidney Foundation, for allegedly misusing funds.

"Rarely have Singaporeans showed such unanimous purpose in demanding change, and it worked--an undeniable plus for democracy," said political commentator Seah Chiang Nee.

I'm not holding my breath anytime soon for displays of Singaporean people power. But this story suggests that maybe there are limits to how far Singapore's exceptional identity can be maintained.

posted by Dan at 12:34 PM | Comments (21) | Trackbacks (1)

The CIA meets the Department of Common Sense

Timothy Burger reports in Time on a recent initiative by Porter Goss:

In what experts say is a welcome nod to common sense, the CIA, having spent billions over the years on undercover agents, phone taps and the like, plans to create a large wing in the spookhouse dedicated to sorting through various forms of data that are not secret--such as research articles, religious tracts, websites, even phone books--but yet could be vital to national security. Senior intelligence officials tell TIME that CIA Director Porter Goss plans to launch by Oct. 1 an "open source" unit that will greatly expand on the work of the respected but cash-strapped office that currently translates foreign-language broadcasts and documents like declarations by extremist clerics. The budget, which could be in the ballpark of $100 million, is to be carefully monitored by John Negroponte, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), who discussed the new division with Goss in a meeting late last month. "We will want this to be a separate, identifiable line in the CIA program so we know precisely what this center has in terms of investment, and we don't want money moved from it without [Negroponte's] approval," said a senior official in the DNI's office.

On the one hand, this seems like an excellent idea.

On the other hand, I keep wondering why the hell something like this wasn't instituted, oh, ten twenty thirty sixty years ago??!!!!

posted by Dan at 12:53 AM | Comments (14) | Trackbacks (0)

Peter Jennings, R.I.P.

The longtime anchor of ABC news died on Sunday, four months after announcing he had been diagnosed with lung cancer.

His career tracked a lot of recent history, as the ABC obit observes:

As one of America's most distinguished journalists, Jennings reported many of the pivotal events that have shaped our world. He was in Berlin in the 1960s when the Berlin Wall was going up, and there in the '90s when it came down. He covered the civil rights movement in the southern United States during the 1960s, and the struggle for equality in South Africa during the 1970s and '80s. He was there when the Voting Rights Act was signed in 1965, and on the other side of the world when South Africans voted for the first time. He has worked in every European nation that once was behind the Iron Curtain. He was there when the independent political movement Solidarity was born in a Polish shipyard, and again when Poland's communist leaders were forced from power. And he was in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Romania and throughout the Soviet Union to record first the repression of communism and then its demise. He was one of the first reporters to go to Vietnam in the 1960s, and went back to the killing fields of Cambodia in the 1980s to remind Americans that, unless they did something, the terror would return.

On Dec. 31, 1999, Jennings anchored ABC's Peabody-award winning coverage of Millennium Eve, "ABC 2000." Some 175 million Americans watched the telecast, making it the biggest live global television event ever. "The day belonged to ABC News," wrote The Washington Post, "&with Peter Jennings doing a nearly superhuman job of anchoring." Jennings was the only anchor to appear live for 25 consecutive hours.

Jennings also led ABC's coverage of the Sept. 11 attacks and America's subsequent war on terrorism. He anchored more than 60 hours that week during the network's longest continuous period of news coverage, and was widely praised for providing a reassuring voice during the time of crisis. TV Guide called him "the center of gravity," while the Washington Post wrote, "Jennings, in his shirt sleeves, did a Herculean job of coverage." The coverage earned ABC News Peabody and duPont awards.

I am not and never have been a big network news watcher, but my preference was always ABC, and the Jennings' detached, analytical demeanor was the reason. He will be missed.

posted by Dan at 12:21 AM | Comments (2) | Trackbacks (0)

Sunday, August 7, 2005

Good news on the whole pandemic thing

I've expressed concern in recent months about the possibility of a pandemic of avian flu emerging from the birds of East Asia. So it's only fair to point out when there is good news on this front. Lawrence K. Altman provides some on the front page of the New York Times:

Government scientists say they have successfully tested in people a vaccine that they believe can protect against the strain of avian influenza that is spreading in birds through Asia and Russia.

Health officials have been racing to develop a vaccine because they worry that if that strain mutated and combined with a human influenza virus to create a new virus, it could spread rapidly through the world. (The vaccine cannot lead to such a situation because it is made from killed virus.)

Tens of millions of birds have died from infection with the virus and culling to prevent the spread of the virus. About 100 people have been infected, and about 50 have died from this strain of the avian influenza virus, called A(H5N1). So far there has been no sustained human-to-human transmission, but that is what health officials fear, because it could cause a pandemic. And that fear has driven the intense research to develop a vaccine.

The director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, said that although the vaccine that had undergone preliminary tests could be used on an emergency basis if a pandemic developed, it would still be several months before that vaccine was tested further and, if licensed, offered to the public.

"It's good news," Dr. Fauci said. "We have a vaccine."

posted by Dan at 01:00 PM | Comments (2) | Trackbacks (0)

The law of comparative advantage is not dead

That's the message Jagdish Bhawgati delivered in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Friday, responding to Thomas "The World is Flat" Friedman.

[I]t is wrong to infer from this that the world has gone "flat," and that there is no comparative advantage left. The notion of a flat world is as wrong metaphorically now as it was when Copernicus showed it to be literally wrong. To be more precise than his metaphor, Mr. Friedman has on his mind not the world but a large fraction of it -- India and China. He believes that the gradient which the citizens of these countries had to climb to get to our shores and out-compete us has now disappeared, giving way to a level playing field that we ignore at our peril.

But he takes too literally his friends in Bangalore. They flex their muscles on IT the way Popeye does on spinach, and tell him that some Indians can now do anything that the Americans can do. But it is a leap to translate this into the proposition that several Indians will now do everything that the Americans do. Then again, we have Intel Chairman Craig Barrett talking about 300 million Indians and Chinese professionals who will hurtle down the flat road. And Clyde Prestowitz, in his latest book, carries the argument to its logical conclusion with the American nightmare that there will be three billion Indians and Chinese capitalists soon down that road.

In truth, the flat road is not flat at all. Take the supply of educated manpower in India. Of the numbers in the age cohort for college education, only about 6% make it to college. Of these, only two-thirds graduate, and just a small fraction can read English. Of these, a further fraction can speak it; and of these, a smaller fraction still can speak it in a way which you and I can understand. The truth of the matter, therefore, is that even for the call-answer and back-office services, the numbers who will compete are only a very small fraction of the numbers being thrown about. India's huge size and the dazzle of the few Institutes of Technology are totally misleading. The road is not flat; the gradient becomes steep as wages rise for those who can manage while others cannot qualify.

Again, just think back on why China has not managed to break into IT the way it has on a range of manufactures, while India has. Surely, that has to do with the fact that India is democratic and hence IT can flourish. By contrast, the CP (the Communist Party) is not compatible with the PC: Authoritarian regimes are fearful of IT -- a gigantic pothole in the road!

Such fears of a flat road were rampant when many thought that Japan would be a fearsome Godzilla, trampling over our activities all around. But then it turned out that the Japanese were real klutzes in the financial sector. They still are. And remember that while the Chinese and Indians have lower wages, we have better infrastructure, stronger venture capital markets, an ability to attract talent from around the world, and a culture of inventiveness. Comparative advantage persists; the road is simply not flat.

The best rebuttal to Bhagwati's argument, by the way, is not Thomas Friedman, but labor economist Richard Freeman. So go check both of them out.

posted by Dan at 11:55 AM | Comments (13) | Trackbacks (0)