Thursday, August 27, 2009

Oops! – Afghanistan's VP is a drug lord and we knew it all along

The NYT on Marshal Muhammad Qasim Fahim, former secretary of defense and potential new vice president:

But by 2002, C.I.A. intelligence reports flowing into the Bush administration included evidence that Marshal Fahim was involved in Afghanistan’s lucrative drug trade, according to officials discussing the reports and the internal debate for the first time.

He had a history of narcotics trafficking before the invasion, the C.I.A. reports showed. But what was most alarming in the reports were allegations that he was still involved after regaining power and becoming defense minister. He now had a Soviet-made cargo plane at his disposal that was making flights north to transport heroin through Russia, returning laden with cash, the reports said, according to American officials who read them. Aides in the Defense Ministry were also said to be involved. [...]

Some United States officials in Washington and Kabul argued that there was no smoking gun proving his involvement in narcotics trafficking, and thus no need to break off contact with him. And eventually, the Bush administration hit on what officials thought was a solution: American military trainers would be directed to deal only with subordinates to Marshal Fahim, and not Marshal Fahim himself.

That would at least give the Bush administration the appearance of complying with the law.

Interestingly, there was a period when it seems that Karzai kicked Fahim out of the most obvious positions of power, which the NYT writer seems to think was to win an ethnic bloc in the coming election:

By late 2003, officials said, the Bush administration began to realize its mistake, and initiated what officials called its “warlord strategy” to try to ease key warlords out of power. Marshal Fahim remained defense minister until 2004 and was briefly Mr. Karzai’s running mate as vice president in elections that year, but Mr. Karzai then dropped him.

Marshal Fahim remains a powerful figure among Tajiks, the ethnic group in north Afghanistan, and Mr. Karzai, a Pashtun from the south, calculated that an alliance with the general would help him increase his support in northern Afghanistan.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Why (many) development economists don't know shit

For any of you economics-of-development buffs out there, here is a scathing academic critique (pdf unfortunately) of the widely-read Doing Business reports issued by the World Bank. The report's subtitle says "measuring business regulations," but givers of development aid (including the US and EU) often use it as a proxy for general liberalization, and make it a condition for countries to receive aid. Academics are also enamored with the reports, and many a complex econometric regression has relied on its data.

The problem is that the data don't capture the reality on the ground very well. I'm not really in the mood to summarize the paper, but a major issue is ex ante vs. ex post costs – that is, whether ease-of-registration in the beginning is gained at the expense of a lot of hassle later when disputes have to be adjudicated. Doing Business measures the fixed costs, but neglects the later costs that are incurred if a business has to prove things that in a system weighted towards ex post costs would already have been taken care of. The author's point isn't that a system of ex ante costs is necessarily better, but just that the World Bank doesn't take the later costs into account at all.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Remittances up in these hard times

Two remittances-related blog posts popped up on my feed reader today. The first, from International Political Economy Zone, is about how, despite economists' expectations, remittances in the Philippines are still increasing. This post, from the World Bank's Private Sector Development blog, discusses how the World Bank and the Economist believe that immigrants are engaging in currency speculation on the margin – the strengthening of first-world currencies compared to developing countries' currencies is causing immigrants to send more money home, since they know their families will get more local currency for their dollars/euros/pounds.

The overall remittance picture according to a World Bank report (.pdf) is that remittances to Latin America (presumably mostly from the US and Spain) are mostly down, whereas they are still growing in countries in South and Southeast Asia, albeit at slower rates. That is, with the exception of Pakistan, whose growth rate in remittances is actually up so far for 2009. The Philippines' growth rate in remittances slowed from 14% from 2007-08 to 3% so far in 2009 – obviously lower because of the economic slowdown in the US, with its 4 million Filipino immigrants, but perhaps mitigated due to the fact that demand for healthcare, where many Filipinos in America work, has been more robust than the demand for construction, where many Mexicans work[ed]. The growth in the rate of growth of remittances to Pakistan baffles me though – I'd suspect that most overseas Pakistanis worked in the Gulf and the UK, which haven't exactly been thriving as of late. Perhaps the growth is driven by Pakistanis in India? Is there even significant immigration from Pakistan to India?

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Does the average American smoke pot at least once a week?

I don't know if I've ever seen any estimates of how much marijuana is consumed annually within the US, but this number hints at it:

Since the beginning of 2007, the report states, Mexican security forces have seized about 65 tons of cocaine and more than 9.3 million pounds of marijuana.

Assuming all the weed was destined for the US, that means that about 7.5 grams of weed were inderdicted for every man, woman, and child. A rough estimate – the marijuana was likely consumed in Mexico and Canada as well as the US, but then again both Canada and the US have non-trivial amounts of domestic production. This amount of weed is a bit more than the street equivalent of a "quarter" (aka, a quarter of an ounce), and is roughly enough weed to get one person high about 15-40 times, depending on quality and tolerance. I would be very surprised if even half of all marijuana produced was seized before it reached smokers – I would put the number at about one-quarter, which would mean that the average American gets high at least once or twice a week. But this seems a bit unrealistic...did I mess up the math, or are my suppositions incorrect? Or do Americans just smoke a lot more weed than we realize?

Monday, August 17, 2009

Global warming started with farming

I read about this theory somewhere a few months ago, but had no real basis for assessing its validity. And just now, via Megan McArdle, I find that it's been written up in the Economist:

The ice-core record shows that the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere made an anomalous upturn about 7,000 years ago, and that methane levels, which were also falling, began to increase about 5,000 years ago (see chart). These numbers correspond well with the rise of farming in Europe and Asia.

I can't find the quote now, but I remember reading that someone hypothesized that this human-driven global warming might have staved off an ice age.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Zoning as a tool for class exclusion

Discovering Urbanism has a nice post up about early 20th century urban planner Charles Mulford Robinson and his planning textbook, and it includes the following corrective to the notion that zoning originated as a way to separate polluting industry from places of residence and commerce:

There’s a common narrative about how zoning unfolded in America. First, planners needed to find ways to separate dangerous and unhealthy factories from the places where people lived. Once the legal basis for this tool was secured, it was eventually employed to separate businesses from residents. The final stage of zoning was to segregating different kinds of people from each other. That’s how we reached where we are today.

However, the Robinson textbook indicates that this progression was, if anything, reversed. In reality, residences at the time couldn’t be separated much from industry, because many of the working classes had to be within walking distance from their jobs. On the other hand, some of the very earliest uses of zoning were explicitly intended to separate “exclusive” neighborhoods from the lower classes, whether by requiring minimum densities or barring anything but detached single-family housing.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Daily Mail: Kim Jong-il is bisexual...O RLY??

So, according to the Daily Mail, Kim Jong-il has bisexual tendencies (emphasis mine):

Kim Jong Il has ruled it with absolute authority since 1994. He was born in the Forties, but his exact birthday is asecret [sic]. He wears platform shoes and a teased hairdo and is reputed to have had a string of lovers, both male and female. His hobby is watching old Hollywood movies including Rambo, Friday The 13th and James Bond.

...and yet, I can't find any other mention of that in any other media source. Not only that, but the Dear Leader supposedly overlooking his second son, Kim Jong-chul, as a successor because he was "too effeminate."

In other words: it looks like the Daily Mail is makin' shit up again.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The WaPo burries the lede on a story about Fannie and Freddie

Talk about burying the lede – here're the last two paragraphs of a Washington Post story about the federal government doing some bureaucratic shuffling with Fannie and Freddie:

The administration's discussions on the future of the companies began in earnest earlier this year during the regulatory reform planning process and are just entering a more serious phase now. National Economic Council director Lawrence Summers has long wanted to overhaul the structure of the companies and warned as far back as the late 1990s that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac posed a threat to the financial system.

I'm embarrassed to say this, but I didn't realize how good of an understanding Larry Summers (and Tim Geithner, for that matter) had of the causes of the financial crisis (check out this liberal Fox Business Channel commentator's critique of him). It's sad that someone with such a good understanding of economics before he was vested with so much power can so easily fall into the trap of supporting interventions that in a past life he might have known were a bad idea.

But here's the real kicker:

The government seized the firms last fall as the financial crisis worsened and has since used them to help reduce interest rates on mortgages generally and to assist borrowers who are at risk of losing their homes.

I wish the Post would make clearly that Summers' fear back in the late '90s was exactly that Fannie and Freddie's were doing too much of exactly that – reducing interest rates on mortgages.

Obama plans to socialize the internet?'s headline: Broadband Is This Generation’s Highway System, FCC Chief Says

Scary words, those are. In 1956, when Eisenhower set out to construct a national, socialized network of highways, he was fulfilling the dreams of many progressives since the turn of the century, who believed that a road system designed and funded by the government ought to replace the privately-owned networks of streetcars and other rail-based mass transit that had up until then been the mainstay of urban and suburban transportation. Their plans profoundly transformed America, giving birth to venerable American icons like the road trip, fast food restaurant, and large-lot suburban subdivision.

But it hasn't been all white picket fences and manicured lawns. Suburan and exurban sprawl consume ever-increasing amounts of energy and land, and are at the root of many of America's ecological and foreign policy problems. Our obesity epidemic may even stem from our car-based culture, and while the isolation that suburbs provide can be nice, there's something to be said for the diversity and culture that one finds in cities.

If the Obama administration doesn't back off the internet, it very well may end up as interesting as a suburban subdivision and as fast as a SoCal highway during rush hour.

Monday, August 3, 2009

NYC cabbies talking on phones: government solution vs. free market solution

The NYT discusses the issue of New York cabbies talking on the phone with hands-free devices – a common occurrence, though technically illegal in New York City. The discussion of remedies focuses almost entirely on the government enforcing its rules, with the free market alternative mentioned only in the last two paragraphs:

This being New York, the most effective means of cutting off a conversation may be found not in the offices of city regulators, but in the customer’s wallet.

“When I talk all the time, the passengers get angry,” said Mohammad Forazi, 42, of the Bronx. “They don’t give tips.”

In a totally free market, one could plausibly imagine a cab company that bills itself as a safer alternative, and bans its drivers from talking on the phone. One of the benefits of brands is that they have reputations to uphold, and thus have an incentive to make customers want to come back. New York cabbies, however, are totally indistinguishable. This is supposedly a feature of the cab cartel in New York and many major cities of the world, not a bug.