Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Bloomberg the hypocrite

Some startling statistics about marijuana arrests in NYC have been flying around the internet – marijuana arrests are up by almost an order of magnitude, and the arrestees are disproportionately black or Hispanic. The NYT implies that it was this embarrassment that led to Bloomberg's crackdown:

Among the pretty large population of white people who have used pot and not been arrested for it is Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. Asked during the 2001 campaign by New York magazine if he had ever smoked it, Mr. Bloomberg replied: “You bet I did. And I enjoyed it.” After he was elected and his remarks were used in advertisements by marijuana legalization advocates, Mr. Bloomberg said his administration would vigorously enforce the laws.

I can't really think of any other reason for the crackdown, considering his oft-touted common sense approach (and would could be more common sensical?). The article also includes this creepy anecdote at the end:

More than 30 years ago, legislators and the governor agreed, in broad terms, that the state would no longer jail people in possession of small amounts of marijuana.

The exceptions are that anyone caught “burning” marijuana or with it “open to public view” faces a misdemeanor charge.

The man who appeared in criminal court on Tuesday explained how his pot came to be openly displayed to police officers, even though he was in his car.

“I came out of the building, and this unmarked car, no light, no indication it was police, was right on me,” said the man, a Latino who asked that his name not be used because he was concerned about his job. “Right on my tail. An officer got out, he said, ‘I saw you walking from that building, I know you bought weed, give me the weed.’ He made it an option: ‘Give me the weed now and I will give you a summons, or we can search your vehicle and can take you in.’ ”

He opened the console and handed them his marijuana — making it “open to public view.”

“I was duped,” he said. But the deception was legal, and his pot wasn’t.

The officers escorted him in handcuffs to the unmarked car.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The FSB and 9/11

I sent a letter to La Russophobe – a blog about "the rise (and hopefully fall) of the neo-Soviet Union" – and it was printed (sort of...) on the Wednesday issue. The letter was about the FSB and their links to al-Qaeda and 9/11. Here's the link. My grammar ain't so hot, and she didn't post the links (but left in the footnote indicators), but here it is if you wanna read it.

Once an KGB agent, always a KGB agent

Departing Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi has been offered a job shilling for Russia's energy interests in Europe, but has turned it down. This would seem to be a good thing on the face of it: outgoing German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder took the bait just weeks after pushing through legislation favorable to the company, and became the chairman of the Gazprom division that was to build the very pipeline that he had just pushed through. He has been a reliable shill for the Russians ever since, even defending the Russians during the row over the Bronze Soldier statue in Tallinn.

But, Romano Prodi is unfortunately not so innocent. In 1978, amidst what the Italians called the "Years of Lead," during which many terrorist attacks were carried out by far-left and far-right organizations, the prominent Christian Democrat Aldo Moro was assassinated by the Red Brigade before he could negotiate a political truce between the Communists and the Christian Democrats. But before he was killed, while he was being held hostage, Romano Prodi at the time claimed to have taken part in a séance on a whim with a few Italian intellectuals, during which time the place where Moro was being held hostage appeared to him. The police searched the village named Gradoli, but didn't find anything. However, after Moro's death, it turned out that he was being held on via Gradoli, outside of Rome – Prodi either received the information correctly in a séance, or was tipped off by a source in the leftist terrorist organization, the Red Brigade.

The story that Prodi received the correct name in a séance is pretty absurd, but it makes sense if you consider the allegations against him by the Mitrokhin Archives (a series of documents about the KGB's external operations obtained by an FSB double agent). Romano Prodi was accused of being the "KGB's man in Italy." There was an investigation, but nothing ever came of it. The controversy was rekindled in 2006 when it was revealed that assassinated former FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko was told by assassinated former FSB deputy director Anatoly Trofimov that Romano Prodi was "one of ours" – that is, an FSB agent. Funny how they both happen to have been assassinated.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Sochi fails to impress

In continuing with the dictatorships and their Olympics dreams theme, a story from the Moscow Times (via La Russophobe – a blog brimming with depressing news about Russia) talks about the Russians' troubles in Sochi. In the world of Olympics politics, Russia had to at least be given a Winter Olympics, and so the southern resort city of Sochi will host the 2014 Winter Olympics. Though Putin did better than Aliyev in Azerbaijan in that he actually got the Olympics, it appears there is trouble with the construction. The IOC commission was a bit concerned when accusations of mismanagement and cost overruns started showing up in the media. But now, apparently the head of the oh-so-Sovietly named state corporation "Olimpstroi" has resigned amidst the scandal:

When Vainshtok resigned last Thursday, government officials said the change in command had been planned in advance and would not affect the pace of preparations.

But a flurry of subsequent media reports suggested that Vainshtok had quit because he realized the task was too unwieldy.

"It is very difficult to make Sochi an Olympic city," an unidentified official said, RIA-Novosti reported. "There are many infrastructure limitations – no electricity, no roads, no way to get cargoes there needed for building."

Hint to future authoritarians considering hosting the Olympics: it's not worth the embarrassment.

Would you like some dog food with your pasta?

A quote from the NY Times' latest fear-mongering article about the rising prices of food in America:

“It hasn’t gotten to human food mixed with pet food yet,” he said, “but it is certainly headed in that direction.”

Somehow, I don't see that in the near future. This ranks up there with the slew of stories about Costco's starvation-inducing new policy of limiting customers to buying only 100 pounds of uncooked rice at a time. I wish someone would explain to these journalists the meaning of the term "loss leader."

Friday, April 25, 2008

Attacks on unarmed Tibetans caught on tape

Europeans climbing Mt. Everest seem to have caught some extremely disturbing footage of Tibetans being picked off by Chinese soldiers while trying to make a pilgrimage to see the Dalai Lama in India. According to the narrator, the national Chinese news agency was broadcasting news that Chinese soldiers had been attacked by Tibetan pilgrims while trying to nonviolently persuade the Tibetans to return. I can't vouch for the video's authenticity, but I do see that it was produced by ProTV, which is the most popular channel in Romania, so I doubt that it's fake. On the upside, at least someone was watching.

Update: This is apparently an old story from 2006.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Farmers farming

All sorts of juicy little bits about the infamous Farm Bill in a "NEWS ANALYSIS" from the NY Times (pun entirely unintentional).

Not to get your hopes up, so I'll just say it right now: no big changes for the farm bill. The mammoth thing is $300 billion and covers five years (!!), and it ends up in the low single-digits as a percent of federal spending. However, the ramifications are huge: payments to farmers encourage the planting of certain commodities, much of which is used as animal feed. So, farmers of wheat, soy, corn, rice, animals, and even tobacco receive lower prices, which inevitably (given the finite nature of the world) leads to higher prices for literally everything else in the world, but mostly for unsubsidized foods: fruits and vegetables. Oh yeah, and there's that whole food-pricing-shooting-through-the-roof and agribusiness-making-huge-profits thing. But hey, maybe they really need the money!

One of the bill's defenders, Sen. Tom Harkin of Dakota, comes up with the entirely unconvincing argument that "expecting the huge farm bill to address current challenges is like asking a farmer to go out and grow corn for tonight’s supper." To me, the fact that it's so difficult to change the farm bill (uh, why would it be so difficult, anyway?) would seem to be more of a reason to start now, rather than wait. "The senior Republican on the House Agriculture Committee, Representative Robert W. Goodlatte of Viriginia" blames it on the Democrats with their ethanol – definitely partially their fault, but it's amazing that these people can use the "what he's doing is worse" argument with a straight face, as if your duty to the nation depends on how well someone else is doing their job.

Rep. Kind, who obviously never got the memo about how governments work:

“It really is astounding,” said Representative Ron Kind, Democrat of Wisconsin, who has pushed for broad changes in farm subsidy programs. “It’s as if this farm bill is being negotiated in a vacuum.”

Astounding? More like par for the course. Oh, and your candidate for change? He issues incredibly misleading communiqés in which he hopes you'll confuse millions and billions, all the while being a big backer of farm subsidies' evil twin: ethanol subsidies.

Your friendly neighborhood ICE agent

The Christian Science Monitor has an editorial about illegal immigrants and local police with a fascinating anecdote in it. The editorial is calling for towns to forbid their local police from acting as immigration police (contrary to a legal fad blooming across the nation of local governments taking immigration law into their own hands). It talks about a law passed by Rhode Island (if you were born after 1988, you'd probably know it as La Isla Rhode) that gives police the authority to stop anyone they "suspect" of being in the country illegally and inquire after their immigration status. The law is being trumpeted at a cost saving measure, absurdly enough – as if it's cheaper to collect taxes from and provide services to people who almost always work and are generally scared of the government than to root them out and arrest them. Anyway, here's a bit of the story:

Thankfully not all cities and states are taking such a hard-line approach. At the beginning of 2006, the mayor of New Haven, Conn., signed an order forbidding municipal police from enforcing federal immigration law or inquiring about any resident's citizenship.

The impact of the reform was immediate. In the first year that the policy was implemented, major crime fell by 18 percent in New Haven's immigrant neighborhood. In the world of police statistics, that kind of single-year drop is almost unheard of. The district commander attributes the drop to immigrants' willingness to work with police. "You do a lot of problem solving by having that trust with the community," he said.

Rhode Island's police do not seem worried about losing that trust though. Last week, the police chiefs association voted overwhelmingly to endorse Carcieri's reform. The president said the decision came after a "healthy discussion."

Why is it surprising that the people paid to enforce laws would want more of them, and that people paid to fight crime would want more of that?

Friday, April 18, 2008

What we all knew about terrorism, confirmed

The Washington Post published an entirely unsurprising article today, citing confidential government sources giving the details of data compiled by the US government on suicide bombings worldwide. Last year, there were 658 suicide attacks world wide, with 542 in Iraq and Afghanistan. More than 21,350 have been killed in these attacks since 1983, and more than 80% of these have happened since 2001. The article says suicide bombings have occurred on five continents – the one without, I suppose, would be Oceania. According to the article, "[a]t least two-thirds of suicide bombings since 1983 have targeted U.S. policy goals." I take that to mean two-thirds of all attacks, not two-thirds of all victims of attacks. That number, I suspect, would be larger.

What disturbs me most about the article, though, is the fact that this had to be anonymously leaked and wasn't automatically made public. The article cites a military spokesman as saying that US casualties from suicide bombs in Iraq couldn't be revealed "because it might show the effectiveness of the enemy's weapon." In other words, we can't tell you, because you'd realize we're losing if we did.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Another reason to hate the Chinese government

From the Guardian: "Chinese ship carries arms cargo to Mugabe regime."

The story was confirmed by the South African government, who said they were powerless to intervene in the absence of a UN embargo. This shipment comes amidst the latest round of violence and crackdowns following the eternally-rigged elections. Earlier it seemed like Mugabe's time was up, but now it appears that he will fight to stay in control, and might succeed given with China's latest shipment of killing implements. According to the article, Sawatu, a South African transportation union, is refusing to deal with the cargo: "Satawu does not agree with the position of the government not to intervene with this shipment of weapons. Our members will not unload this cargo, neither will any of our members in the truck-driving sector move this cargo by road." As if the public needed another excuse to feel dirty about the 2008 Olympics.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

I can see/hear clearly now the state is gone...

In a post a few years ago in Tyler Cowen's blog Marginal Revolution, Alex Tabbarok suggested that one of the reasons that laser eye surgery was so cheap (price has fallen about 40% in real terms from 1998 to 2004) and well-liked by consumers was because since it wasn't covered by Medicare, Medicaid, or insurance (often though of as a market phenomenon, but in reality not a good that would lend itself to insurance) – the government left its hands off of its development, and the laws of supply and demand have made this product cheaper and more helpful than it otherwise would have been if the price signals had been distorted by inclusion in government healthcare plans. From the NY Times, another example of this: the Lyric hearing aid. The blog post describes the wonders of this product compared to others (it sits deeper in the ear canal than any other hearing aid has managed), with glowing reviews from unaffiliated users and doctors. And all of this, despite (or because of, if you believe in free market healthcare) the fact that:

When the Lyric’s battery dies, the entire device is replaced. Patients do not pay for a new device every time; instead, they pay an annual subscription fee of $2,900 to $3,600 for both ears (less if the hearing loss is in only one ear). Insurance plans typically do not cover the cost of the Lyric, or any other hearing device.

The technology is apparently in beta, and due to technical limitations, is only able to be worn by half the population, but the company says they're working on a version that "should work for about 85 percent of patients." While $3,000/year is too much for most people to pay per year, hopefully competition and technological development will bring down costs. Just cross your fingers and hope that patent laws don't give the inventors rights over everything like it.

Nature's best friend: the city

From Wired, here's a very informative map of per-capita carbon emissions in the United States. If you want total carbon emissions (not per capita), they have another. The maps are essentially inverted – the places that use the most amount of total energy are the most densely populated, yet they emit much less carbon per person. Even cities that we don't think of as very urban – like Los Angeles, Phoenix, and all cities in Texas – do very well in per-capita carbon emissions. In the original article, they show a close-up of the LA metro area, and it actually says that some parts have negative carbon emissions. I don't really understand how that's possible, but the point – that they have a carbon footprint about an order of magnitude smaller – is well taken.

There are a few reasons why cities are so much more efficient than other types of living. For one, people occupy smaller houses, and those houses are often stacked on top of each other, allowing more insulation, which reduces heating and cooling costs. Their transportation carbon footprint is much lower, since car ownership is less prevalent, and ground-based mass transit is remarkably energy efficient. This applies to all goods consumed in cities: since many distribution systems are based at least somewhat on a hub-and-spoke model, being in the "hub" allows goods to get to you much faster, using less energy. Furthermore (and this may account for the negative carbon emissions of the most densely-populated centers), the amount of nature that has to be destroyed is much lower, and many natural landscapes (forests, plains, etc.) act as carbon sinks, removing carbon from the atmosphere and turning it into oxygen.

Most of the time, efficiency in energy equates with efficiency in economics, as the system will use fewer inputs to achieve the same output. However, we'll never know, since the most polluting industries (transportation and energy production) have had their market signals removed by government policies and regulation, ensuring the perpetuation of the very anti-market status quo.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Bering Strait linguistic connection proposed

Linguistics is a field that rarely comes across exciting new discoveries, but this one seems as exciting as linguistics can get: a linguist at Western Washington Universities believes he's found a connection between two almost-extinct languages on either side of the Bering Strait. The language on the Eurasian side is Ket, of the Yeniseic family, and the language family on the American side is the Na-Dene family. "Long rangers," or linguists who try to connect languages that aren't commonly accepted as from the same language, have often tried to connect Basque (the most famous language isolate), as well as others like Finnish and Hungarian (which have unclear origins), but connecting the languages on either side of the Bering Strait would be the holy grail, as it could pave the way for further investigation into the Nostratic language hypothesis – the theory that many language families that today are not seen as related all stemmed from one source. (And the Nostratic hypothesis isn't too far from the proto-World language hypothesis, which posits that all languages alive today came from one source.) Before this discovery, "long rangers" were often regarded as a bit kooky by historical linguists, but maybe in the next few years we'll see a shift in attitudes in linguistics, a field that's traditionally very conservative in its proposals.

Edit: here is a website with all of the original research, if you're into historical/comparative linguistics.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

China's complacent youth

China's economic boom hasn't placated the Tibetans or Uyghurs, but it sure has worked with young urban adults. They have no shame over their nationalistic designs on ethnic minorities, and identify readily with the Chinese state in a pretty collectivist way. I've even noticed it among Americanized Chinese – even ones that I think in any other situation would condemn a nation often start subconsciously spewing the "harmonious" style of argument so favored by the Chinese Communist Party regarding issues of China's territorial integrity (be it Tibet or Taiwan). Despite years of Chinese subservience to the West, it seems a little selfish to be holding on to Tibet or Taiwan when you are the world's most populous nation by far (and would likely be larger if it weren't for the government's absurd reproductive policy). The article goes on to note that today's older generation is much more skeptical of the state, and proposes that this generation will, too, grow out of their reverence once they enter the job market and begin to really see the deficiencies of the state.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Persecuting polygamists

The NY Times has an article taking a critical look at the raid on the ranch of the polygamist dissenting Mormon sect, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS for short). Apparently, a similar think happened fifty years ago:

In the world of fundamentalist polygamy, the phrase “Short Creek” has resonated since 1953, when the police descended on the twin communities of Hildale, Utah, and Short Creek, Ariz., now Colorado City. More than 30 men were arrested, and hundreds of children were rounded up and taken into custody. Psychological walls went up as the communities retreated and taught the young to believe that the government was the enemy.

Such a huge raid is bound to have an effect on even the girl who called the police (as of yet unaccounted for, though it seems likely that she was among the hundreds of children taken from the compound) – no matter what sort of terrible things are going on, if you are living in this insular community, and everyone you know is there, it's got to feel awful to know that you've unilaterally done something so tremendous. I'm not exactly sure what the immediate tactic should have been – regardless of how I feel about government, the fact is that a girl was being raped and beaten and the state was the only authority that had any chance at stopping it. But I think that generally legalizing polygamous marriage (or, even better, removing any references by the state to marriage!) would go a long way to getting these people to come out into society. They're doing these terrible things already, and there's little chance that there's anything anyone can do to stop such a thing from happening in the future. However, if they're allowed to come into public schools, admit how they live, and live among people without threat of the law coming down on them (at least for plural marriage), there's a higher likelihood that the members (especially the younger ones) will see the allure of not living among those sorts of people, and the church would likely fail without its secrecy. The members might be brainwashed to some extent, but the church elders are not lying to them when they say that the government is out there to ruin their way of life, and it would probably be a good idea to take that weapon away from them.

Anyway, this situation isn't unique to polygamists – the criminalization of the economic engines of American ghettos (drugs and prostitution) has the consequence of insulating those places and allowing much more heinous crimes to be committed.

Living on $4/day and owning a cell phone

There's an excellent article in this coming weekend's NY Times Magazine in which a reporter follows around a "human-behavior researcher" or "user anthropologist" at Nokia. Basically, he travels around the world to discover how people use their phones and what Nokia could do to make them sell better. His work mainly is focused on the Third World, it being the place with the largest untapped market for cell phones. It's full of fascinating anecdotes, and reminds you of the power of something that seems as benign as a cell phone. There's a lot that's fascinating about this article, but this is what I found the most intriguing:

One of the most remarkable findings was that even very poor families invested a significant amount of money in the I.C.T. category — information-communication technology, which, according to Al Hammond, the study’s principal author, can include money spent on computers or land-line phones, but in this segment of the population that’s almost never the case. What they’re buying, he says, are cellphones and airtime, usually in the form of prepaid cards. Even more telling is the finding that as a family’s income grows — from $1 per day to $4, for example — their spending on I.C.T. increases faster than spending in any other category, including health, education and housing. “It’s really quite striking,” Hammond says. “What people are voting for with their pocketbooks, as soon as they have more money and even before their basic needs are met, is telecommunications.”

The fact that one would be surprised at the spending habit's of another seems obvious: human desire and exchange is complex, so complex that we cannot hope to possibly be able to understand it all. This is precisely the reason that communism could never work even under the most helpful conditions: no one can possibly allocate goods as well as the market. And yet, in development, people are so often focused on introducing certain things into people's lives, be it safe drinking water of access to healthcare. And yet, when people make decisions with their own money, they spend it on cell phone minutes!

Also, this makes me feel more optimistic about Somalia, because despite its so-often derided status as a stateless wasteland, it has some of the cheapest calling rates and competitive telecom markets in Africa.

Friday, April 11, 2008

DC Madam case goes to trial

The DC Madam trial has been going on for the last few days, and though I'd never give up an opportunity to shame congressmen who hired prostitutes but never tried to get anti-prostitution laws revoked, I think this went a little too far. According to the Washington Post article, over one hundred names of former prostitutes were released, and many were forced to testify about the nitty-gritty details of their work, including this entirely unnecessary exchange (with some context first; all emphasis is mine):

It's particularly unfortunate when considering what the former escorts earned for this public disgrace: $130 for their 90-minute "calls." Add in travel time, and these sex workers toiled for perhaps $40 an hour.

Yet prosecutors act as if they've caught a major organized crime figure. An IRS agent yesterday showed the jury photos of her home -- a mop and cornflakes box in evidence -- and recited Palfrey's sewer bill, electricity payment, car maintenance and check to Office Depot. One juror's eyes closed, and her head dropped. Others yawned. "I'm not sure why the jury needs to see any of this," the judge pointed out. "Waste of time."

The same might be said of the rest of the case.

Wednesday, Connelly was grilling the 63-year-old former escort. "Did you specifically discuss what happened when you went in the shower?" the prosecutor wanted to know.

The witness explained, "I was having sex."

"What would happen if you were menstruating?" Connelly asked.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Lying would-be presidents

During this election season, an article from Reason reminds us of something very important: the presidential candidates are lying. George Bush lied about shrinking government (and yet was the first president in history to sign off on a $2 trillion federal budget, and then later the first to sign off on a $3 trillion budget) and about a "humble foreign policy" with no "nation building" (and here we are with wars fast approaching the cost of WWII, and which have lasted longer than it did, anyway). But what's most interesting about the article is something I'd never known before: FDR campaigned on a platform that looks downright libertarian in retrospect. An excerpt from the article on the Democrats' manifesto for the 1932 election:

The very first plank calls for "an immediate and drastic reduction of governmental expenditures by abolishing useless commissions and offices, consolidating departments and bureaus, and eliminating extravagance to accomplish a saving of not less than twenty-five per cent in the cost of the Federal Government." (It also asks "the states to make a zealous effort to achieve a proportionate result.") Subsequent planks demand a balanced budget, a low tariff, the repeal of Prohibition, "a sound currency to be preserved at all hazards," "no interference in the internal affairs of other nations," and "the removal of government from all fields of private enterprise except where necessary to develop public works and natural resources in the common interest." The document concludes with a quote from Andrew Jackson: "equal rights to all; special privilege to none." It sounds more like Ron Paul than Pelosi.

And of course, the Democratic primaries aren't even over and we already have some hard evidence that Obama hasn't been exactly been honest with his anti-NAFTA electioneering, and then there's the strong anecdotal evidence that Hilary Clinton hasn't been, either (as I recall, someone very close to her championed the passage of that bill as president in the early ' if I could just remember his name!).

The bigger issue, I think, is why this isn't an issue. Why do presidential candidates get to lie their way through the elections, and then totally change their position when they're actually in office? Why, during their inevitable incumbent campaigns, are they not shamed for their lies four years earlier? You'd think that in the world of 24/7 cable news, with constant harping on the smallest of issues, these bald-faced lies would be rating-gettings for the networks. But apparently not.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Why politicians wouldn't want to talk about science

The headline on today is an article about Clinton, Obama, and McCain spurning a debate that was supposed to be about science. You'd think that would be a warm place for Democrats: there is no fundamentalist Christian base out there asking them to refute basic tenants of modern science, and yet neither of them wanted to show up at the event. It's pretty telling, though, of electoral strategies: debating science is a very technical topic, and actually requires expertise. Which isn't a bad thing – if a president is going to be making decisions that are ultimately rooted in science, they ought to know something about it. But people don't campaign on facts, they campaign generalities. What's Obama going to say when someone confronts him about the environmental and humanitarian costs of ethanol subsidies? Or when McCain is questioned about his statement that marijuana has no unique medicinal value? Or when any of the candidates are pressed on how likely any of their plans are to actually address America's contribution to general environmental degradation? So much of electioneering is based on trying to get people to not pay attention to numbers and facts, so it doesn't seem to be in anyone's advantage to embarrass themselves when they have to concede that they really don't know much about science at all.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Japanese citizen journalists

Japan has always been a mystery to me, so the smallest things that come out of it seem like such enlightenment, but here it goes:

In the United States, online news is divided into a few categories: portal news (AP headlines and a lot of sensational stories on Yahoo or MSN landing pages), online-only news (Drudge Report, Google News, Digg to some extent), and then there's the established media (CNN, NY Times, etc.). Blogging has started disseminating more diffuse sources, and a very small number of blogs do their own actual reporting (as opposed to meta-reporting and commentary).

In Japan, however, which has very high rates of newspaper readership, the print media was still very dominant, and five national newspaper set the tone of the news. In a Christian Science Monitor article, the author talks about the rise of "citizen journalists" who report exclusively for websites, and who often work for free and are not professional reporters. The stereotype of the citizen journalist is in direct opposition with the mainstream journalist, who must belong to a press club, and whose sources are very controlled. Mainstream journalists, some say, rely too much on the government, which isn't surprising given the corporatist leanings of Japan.

The article doesn't go into detail about the types of reporting that citizen journalists do, and I can't read Japanese so I can't really figure out for myself. The examples of reporting cited seem slightly sensationalistic (rapes, homelessness, labor rights) – these are important as news, but it's also important to have more comprehensive reporting, or reporting that taps into high-level sources and discusses the government. Of course, that's also the kind of reporting it's difficult to do if a) most of your reporters aren't paid and b) you don't have any sources in government or the upper echelons of business.

Bacon up that sausage, boy!

From the NY Times, a story about hidden earmarks, whose total cost might exceed that of "hard" earmarks. Lawmakers get away with it by not explicitly apportioning money to an agency, but rather "urges" or "recommends" that an agency finance a certain project. They are bullying them: while the agencies are under no specific legal order to implement the program, agencies feel pressure to follow them. Apparently you can find them all over, but lawmakers love to throw them in foreign aid programs. From the article:

Financing for the shortwave radio station, called the Madagascar World Voice, for example, began as a hard earmark request by Representative Pete Sessions, Republican of Texas.

Mr. Sessions originally sought $2.5 million for World Christian Broadcasting, a group based in Nashville that broadcasts in several countries and promotes abstinence to prevent AIDS. The House Appropriations Committee converted it to a soft earmark.

A spokesman for World Christian Broadcasting said the organization had been in discussions with A.I.D. about the financing.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Tibet protests a reaction to meat prices?

In an article from AsianWeek about the roots of the discord in Tibet, the author puts forth the thesis that the agrarian nature of Tibet has clashed with rising demand for meat and grains worldwide. Raising livestock across the fertile Tibetan Plateau is the primary economic activity of Tibet, and China's voracious appetite for meat means that controlling the fertile lands of Tibet is important to the Chinese Communist Party as a means of controlling food prices, which if left unchecked could engender discontent among China's billions. Prices for meat are already highly distorted thanks to Western countries' farm subsidies, transportation subsidies, and ethanol subsidies, and the Chinese economy is hobbled by the remnants of a socialism.

It's no wonder that these two highly anti-market forces would conspire to oppress the average Tibetan, who is at the mercy of Beijing thanks to the lopsided economic outcome of the Communist Party's foray into pseudo-capitalism. It also explains the attacks on noodle shops in Tibet as a form of protest:

Tibetans were buying a leg of lamb for the price of a whole animal, and few would ever stop to consider the inflated price of fuel and truck leasing for the Muslim middleman. In the first day of the Lhasa riots, most of the casualties of arson were Hui Muslim noodle restaurant workers, who migrated to the newly prosperous provincial capital over the past decade — just as Mexican immigrants have gone to major cities to work as dishwashers.

And in other, slightly-related news, on Intrade, futures in any EU country officially boycotting the Olympics are trading at 45%.

Militarization of British schools

From what I can tell, the Labour PM in Britain wants all secondary school pupils to "receive basic military training as a means of developing greater affiliation with the armed forces." Translated into American, it seems to mean that he wants all high school students to undergo some light version of the ROTC. The focus of the plan appears to be poorer schools, and the aim is clearly to instill discipline in a youth culture that many Britons are appalled at (big surprise – when hasn't one generation disapproved of the next?). Mark Brady at the Liberty & Power blog has a great quote from George Orwell on the traditional resentment of most Britons towards militarism and the armed forces...hopefully this plan will be received in Britain as I would imagine it would be in the US, that is, with shock and disapproval.

Cato's great libertarian idea

I was stumbling around the shadier corridors of the internets and I stumbled upon this jarringly mindless comment from someone at the Cato Institute, the supposedly libertarian think-tank:

"Too many American cities are spending far too much money on expensive rail transit projects, which are used for only 1 to 2 percent of local travel, and far too little on highway projects which are used for 95 to 99 percent of local travel," Randal O'Toole, a senior fellow with the Cato Institute, said in an e-mail interview.

So, Cato's "libertarian" position on the matter: the government subsidized and supported roads and cars and we now have lots of roads and cars, therefore the government ought to continue to to build and maintain highway projects to maintain continuity. Wow – this could take the prize for vulgar libertarianism.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Immigration in Arizona and Slough

From the Guardian and the LA Times are two very different stories about immigration: in the Times, Arizona is seeing success in keeping out illegal immigrants and the native-born population hasn't seemed to be suffering much from it; in the Guardian, the town of Slough has been booming amidst high levels of immigration. The places are in some ways similar – Arizona is along the border and sees many migrants from Mexico, and Slough is the most diverse borough in the UK outside of London.

But the similarities end there – in Arizona, the immigration that's causing concern is illegal and the immigrants are relatively low-skilled. In Slough, however, the immigrants have largely been legal ("Asians" [British for Pakistanis and Indians] and Poles after World War II, and more recently immigrants from Africa and newly-EUified Poland), and the government must provide all healthcare service for the immigrants. So while in America people go on and on about emergency rooms being filled up, in Britain, an influx of human beings clogs the entire medical system. And yet, the furor over illegal immigration is more often played out in stories about crime, whereas in the US it's about immigrants stealing jobs and clogging up schools and hospitals. According to the articles, both the economies of Slough and of Arizona are booming at the moment, but the initiatives in Arizona limiting immigration have just recently been put into effect, and the future will tell what impact they had on Arizona. Of course, if the economy goes south, it could just be part of a broader trend.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Absolut Irredentism

An ad in Mexico City – my only question is, why is it in English?

Edit: They apologized for it – spineless bastards!

Outsource your life

In an article from the Christian Science Monitor, Timothy Ferriss (book and blog) discusses the latest iteration of outsourcing: individuals outsourcing their personal business. The author himself outsources all of his e-mail correspondence and schedule making to India and the Philippines, where a few dollars per hour will buy you a highly efficient anglophone personal assistant:

The return-on-investment (ROI) is hard to ignore. Estimate your hourly income by cutting the last three zeros off of your annual income and halving the remaining number. If you make $50,000 per year, for example, you make about $25 per hour.

If you outsource a time-consuming task, business or personal, for $5 an hour, that is a minimum of 400 percent ROI. Reallocate a small amount of your investment money – say $30 to $100 – to a "quality-of-life" offchoring fund on a trial basis.

Start with a basic digital concierge service such as and then graduate to providers such as, where you can implement more ambitious plans. I'm now at the point where I outsource all e-mail and convert more than 500 requests and messages per day into a once-daily 10-minute phone call with a virtual assistant.

Westminster on weed

In more news from across the pond, where some supposedly ultra-potent form of marijuana called skunk* is all the rage, the Tory candidate for Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, admits to having smoked marijuana and done cocaine when he was younger. At the end of the Guardian's article comes this bit:

Last year, virtually the entire cabinet admitted they had smoked cannabis after the home secretary, Jacqui Smith, revealed that she had experimented with it as a youngster.

Everyone from Hilary Benn to Lords leader Lady Ashton confessed to having dabbled with the drug.

The only minister who refused to comment at the time was the then-culture secretary, James Purnell.

* In actuality, high-grade marijuana has been around for a long time. Similarly to how different drinks have differing alcohol content, some marijuana is stronger than others. However, like with alcohol, users are well able to titrate their use and smoke more of the weaker stuff and less of the stronger stuff. Strong marijuana would seem to be a benefit, because you'd have to smoke less plant matter (not that it would matter) to get the same high.

"The only way to defeat terrorism as a threat to our way of life is to stop it, eliminate it, and destroy it where it grows."

In Britain the trial has begun for the men accused of trying to blow up transatlantic airliners over the summer (the reason that it's such a pain in the ass to take liquids with you on airplanes). It appears likely that they intended to commit acts of terrorism, though I'll reserve judgment on how likely they were to succeed/how advanced they were till after everything comes out. Anyway, here's a paragraph from the Telegraph's coverage, in which one of the would-be terrorists gives his rationale for perpetrating the attacks:

They said the deaths of “so-called innocents” were justified because British taxpayers, who funded the Army, did not care about the fate of Muslims, as they were more interested in drinking, watching EastEnders and “complaining about the World Cup”.

The implication seems to me to be that he holds Britons responsible not because of what their government did, but because of their reaction to it. That is, if you want to take him at his word.

Crashing the party in London

It looks like the Chinese government is taking the heat in London. The Communist Party's big PR bungle (thinking the Olympics would impress the world) is mounting. It's a good sign for those who hope that China's big coming is ruined (I count myself proudly among them), because there are still four months until the start of the Olympics, and the world is simmering with protectionist disconnect. The Democratic primaries and ensuing presidential race don't help matters, as Clinton and Obama are already falling over themselves to suck up to the ghost of John Edwards. Given McCain's absent understanding of economics, I'd be surprised if he and Obama (or, in the case of an inconveniently-timed Black Panthers endorsement, Clinton) don't start arguing over who can protect American jobs as well as they do in Gaza.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

NATO madness

In case you were under the mistaken impression that international political decisions about military alliances were made with care, a dispatch from Bucharest ought to clear things up:

NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer announced that Macedonia was not invited to join the Alliance, due to its name related controversy with Greece. [...] Greek officials argued that Macedonia need to choose another name for their nation or at least add another adjective to it.

Macedonia has long been maligned by its neighboring countries of Bulgaria, Serbia, and Greece, all of whom have argued at one point or another that Macedonia rightfully belongs to them. Greece's claims are based on a) the fact that there's a province in Greece called Macedonia, and b) a long-standing resentment over the lost empire of Alexander the Great of Macedon. Of course, there are plenty of cases like this that haven't caused such petty tensions (New Mexico in the US vs. Mexico the country, Moldova the region of Romania vs. Republica Moldova) and outright rejection from a treaty over naming concerns. Bulgaria and Serbia have better claims on the territory, anyway – the Macedonians are Slavs like the Bulgarians and Serbs (unlike the Greeks), and Macedonian is little more than a dialect of Bulgarian (or vice-versa, depending on how you want to look at it).

History at the Atlantic starts in the 1950s

From the Atlantic, blogger J. Goodrich asks: "Haven't we been injecting competition into the health insurance markets for a very long time?" From the tone of the question, one would presume that top-down government programs have been around since the dawn of time, and it's up to free market radicals ("conservatives" in her parlance, just in case you were under the mistaken impression that there was no Manichaeistic Democrat-Republican dichotomy to the world) to create markets through regulation. Goodrich seems to be under the impression that time started in the latter half of the 20th century with intensely regulated physicians and health insurance plans.

In the next sentence, she declares emphatically: "Even the establishment of the government Medicare and Medicaid programs in the 1960's had a pro-competitive edge, because it removed from the commercial markets the most expensive and the poorest paying cases, leaving them with the most lucrative consumers to insure." Um, no, not quite. Removing an entire class of patients from the market means that there is no incentive to innovate with the services that they provide to that quite-needy market, and thus that entire class of patients are left behind with regards to innovation. Those who don't have as serious of ailments also don't get the benefit of increased medical productivity that would come from serving those markets. As a result, if you have a serious condition, don't even think of trying to pay for it without some government-subsidized insurance, because it will likely cost you thousands per month. If the federal government took over the manufacture of servers and mainframe computers, would the market for PCs be more competitive?

She then says, "The Health Maintenance Organization movement of the 1970's was another injection of that competitive hormone into the insurance markets in the form of prepaid group plans which combined insurance with the provision of care." Again, not quite! HMOs are a reaction to government mandates which artificially limit the supply of doctors, and limit the type of care they are allowed to offer. We're stuck with insurance for something that insurance doesn't usually cover – it's not like people expect they'll never get sick! Insurance is usually there for catastrophic, but unlikely events. What are the chances that you'll never have to see a doctor? Do most people just presume that they'll die healthy at the age of 35?

"The truth is that not all competition is helpful to consumers." Well, definitely not pseudo-competition. From what I understand, about half of all healthcare dollars in the US are spent by government programs – someone remind me, can you have a competitive market with a state-imposed monopsony? Before the cartelization of medical services by the AMA and the like (which prompted federal and state governments to take over when that proved to be a not-so-commodious arrangement), health insurance was widely and cheaply available from mutual aid societies. While I agree with the author that McCain's pseudo-libertarian plan will not work, we disagree in that I think it's pseudo-libertarian, and she takes it as given that his plan is the best that laissez-faire can do. If Goodrich is looking for the golden area before state control in medicine, she would do well to turn the clock back to before the government took over the provision of medical services.

Edit: In reading J. Goodrich's own blog, I find out that I am correct, and that she believes that the world is orders of magnitude younger than do Young Earth Creationists: "Health care markets have never been allowed to operate without government intervention, by the way." Really? Never?!

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

More unrest in China: Uyghur edition

Yesterday I predicted that the Tibet protests would not be the last. Today, articles have been appearing across the internet about protests in Xinjiang province, which has a large Uyghur population. The Uyghurs are a Turkic people who adhere to Islam, and who live in the westernmost province of China. Like the Tibetans and most other non-Han minorities in China, the Uyghurs have long been resentful of Beijing's Han-centric style of control. In fact, a few years ago the Chinese capitalized on the post-9/11 terrorism fad, and accused the Uyghurs of Islamic terrorism, despite the fact that their concern is not fundamentalist theocracy, but rather increased autonomy from an oppressive government in Beijing. In a rare PR coup for the CCP, the Americans bought it, and even shipped a few of 'em off to Guantánamo, despite the Uyghurs' generally positive view of the United States.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Communist party PR: who can, who can't

China has reaffirmed its total ineptitude with handing PR on an international scale in claiming the Dalai Lama is orchestrating suicide attacks. It looks like China will be spared a Taiwanese declaration of independence during the Olympics, but I doubt the Tibet crisis will be the last one before the end of the games in late August. I think China has grossly overplayed its hand in hosting the Olympics – at least in America, China is the villain du jour because of the latest anti-globalization backlash provoked by the longer-than-ever presidential election season. Europe has a similar antagonism, divided between intellectuals who look down on their human rights abuses and lack of freedom, and those who have been riled up by protectionist sentiment. The CCP has become so sure of its propaganda techniques at home that thinks that they'll work against world audiences. The truth is that they probably don't even work in China – the threat of the state coming down is strong enough to coax people into either apolitical or pro-party stances. I don't see this at all helping China anywhere where it matters (i.e., advanced democracies). In the rest of the world, the power and money is in the hands of people who aren't particularly concerned with China's big coming out party.

China ought to take a page from Nicolae Ceaușescu, Romania's totalitarian dictator. The Soviets had taught him well, and he turned on the Soviet Union (at least publicly) and managed to be the only communist dictator to secure Most Favored Nation trade privileges from the US. He knew that identifying a common enemy was key to obtaining favors from the West (at least till he went too far and squandered it all in the late '80s), and that allowed him to do some pretty terrible things. Essentially, Ceaușescu courted the West by railing against the Soviets, all in order to cover up behavior that was for more anti-liberal than anything in the USSR after Stalin.

Putin used the same model, and anti-terrorism was what he used to get Bush to look into his eyes and "get a sense of his soul" – and it was a good sense. Meanwhile, it's likely that Russia fabricated a lot of the attacks that were supposedly perpetrated by "Chechen terrorists." The apartment bombings that were the direct cause of the Second Chechen war were most likely black flag operations by the KGB FSB. Moscow theater crisis, too.

Of course, dictatorships have no monopoly on disingenuous PR. America has clearly provoked, if not intentionally, a lot of Islamic terrorism against itself, all in the name of rooting it out. Thankfully for Americans, it doesn't do nearly as well with PR than the dictatorships.