Tuesday, September 30, 2008

$25 billion for US automakers: not a bailout

I've previously castigated the US Big 3 automakers, saying that they should either get through the crisis themselves or die. Alex Taylor, writing for Fortune Magazine has a different take: that they should get the bailout because it's mainly the US government's fault that the automakers are in such straits. After all, Congress could have and should have passed a gas tax years ago, which would have inhibited consumption and forced innovations in fuel efficiency. Of course, Congress did not do so.

Jibjab: It's time for some campaining

Jibjab has a nice parody of the election season.

Closed doors make us poorer

Edward Alden of the Council on Foreign Relations writes for Forbes magazine about the links between foreign policy and immigration regulations. He reminds us that the discussion is about more than unskilled or skilled workers in the US.

The CFR is a highly influential and secretive body. Some CFR alums, like Woodrow Wilson, have taken an internationalist tack in public, generating controversy from conservative quarters. I typically dislike secrecy, but Alden's words generally make sense, and I'm posting them here:

Are America's borders tight enough yet? Not nearly, judging from most of the political rhetoric. Yet just-released Census data shows that immigration to the U.S. plummeted last year, falling from an average of one million newcomers annually since 2000 to just over 500,000. Immigration from Asia fell particularly sharply.

While most of the decline is likely a result of the weakening economy, the numbers are the latest sign that in our determination to seal the borders against terrorists and illegal immigrants, the U.S. is inadvertently driving away some of the very people that have long been crucial to its economic success.

There is no question that our economy needs immigrants. Nearly half of this country's science and engineering Ph.Ds are foreign-born, most of whom came to the U.S. to study at top-flight universities that remain the envy of the world. Those who stayed here now occupy many of the senior research jobs at American multinationals. Others have started their own companies--some 40% of U.S. high-tech start-ups were launched by immigrants.

Attracting the best foreigners, however, has become much, much harder. The complaints take many forms. The most common is that the U.S. cap on visas for highly-skilled foreign workers, known as H-1Bs, is far too low. Lifting the restrictions has become caught up in the messy politics of immigration reform, so each spring we now have a mad scramble as companies try to win some of the coveted 85,000 visas that are granted each year.

This year, nearly half the 163,000 applications were turned down. Google, which was lucky to have only 90 of its 300 applicants rejected, said that while it hires mostly American citizens or permanent residents, "If we're to remain an innovative company--one that is creating jobs in the U.S. every day--we also need to hire exceptional candidates who happen to have been born elsewhere."

Microsoft caused ripples last year when it decided to build its new software development facility across the northern border in Vancouver because it couldn't hire the foreign engineers it wanted in Washington state due to visa caps.

But H-1Bs are only a small part of the issue. Many new measures have been put in place since 9/11 to try to keep terrorists out. Some were sensible and overdue and have created only minimal hassles; but others have been a major deterrent to those who want to travel, work or live here. Despite the weak dollar, overseas travel to the U.S. still remains considerably below its pre-9/11 levels, even as tourism has boomed around the world.

Take Brazil, for example. It has been one of the world's hottest economies and tourist travel to the U.S. should be growing. But it takes more than two months for a Brazilian just to schedule an interview for a U.S. visa, and even then he has to travel to Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro to be interviewed and fingerprinted at an American consulate. Not surprisingly, travel from Brazil to the U.S. plummeted after 9/11 and has not come close to recovering.

With the cash crunch that has pummeled Wall Street, firms are eyeing the huge pools of wealth in the Middle East. But many businessmen and government officials from Arab and Muslim countries say they will not travel to the U.S. because of the humiliation they face at our borders, which makes business deals inordinately difficult. The number of visas issued to Middle Eastern travelers today is just half of what it was before 9/11.

The U.S. should be increasingly attractive to foreign investors. However, in a survey earlier this year by the Council on State Governments, three-quarters of the state officials responsible for attracting investment said they had run into difficulties trying to get visas in a timely fashion for potential overseas investors.

There were many good reasons to strengthen U.S. border security after 9/11. When done right, it can help discourage illegal immigration and can be a vital line of defense against terrorists. But this country's strength has long come from offense, not defense--the offense that comes from relentless innovation that has allowed the U.S. to stay a step ahead of its economic and military competitors. Maintaining that strength requires keeping an open door to the most talented and ambitious people the world has to offer. As one business leader told me: "We are in the process of hollowing out our own economy in the name of security." And that will leave us much less secure.

Edward Alden is the Bernard L. Schwartz senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the author of The Closing of the American Border: Terrorism, Immigration and Security Since 9/11, just published by HarperCollins.

Ehud Olmert: Israel should pull out of the West Bank

From the NY Times: outgoing and disgraced Israeli PM Ehud Olmert summons the courage to say Israel's security depends on pulling out of most or all of the West Bank; he also said land should be exchanged one for one with the Palestinians if Israel leaves settlements in the West Bank. Additionally, he was willing to come to a limited compromise on the Arab section of Jerusalem. I'm pasting the whole article.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said in an interview published on Monday that Israel must withdraw from nearly all of the West Bank as well as East Jerusalem to attain peace with the Palestinians and that any occupied land it held onto would have to be exchanged for the same quantity of Israeli territory.

He also dismissed as “megalomania” any thought that Israel would or should attack Iran on its own to stop it from developing nuclear weapons, saying the international community and not Israel alone was charged with handling the issue.

In an unusually frank and soul-searching interview granted after he resigned to fight corruption charges — he remains interim prime minister until a new government is sworn in — Mr. Olmert discarded longstanding Israeli defense doctrine and called for radical new thinking, in words that are sure to stir controversy as his expected successor, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, tries to build a coalition.

“What I am saying to you now has not been said by any Israeli leader before me,” Mr. Olmert told the newspaper Yediot Aharonot in the interview on the occasion of the Jewish new year, observed from Monday evening till Wednesday evening. “The time has come to say these things.”

He said that traditional Israeli defense strategists had learned nothing from past experiences and that they seemed stuck in the considerations of the 1948 war of independence.

“With them, it is all about tanks and land and controlling territories and controlled territories and this hilltop and that hilltop,” he said. “All these things are worthless.”

He added, “Who thinks seriously that if we sit on another hilltop, on another hundred meters, that this is what will make the difference for the State of Israel’s basic security?”

Over the last year, Mr. Olmert has publicly castigated himself for his earlier right-wing views and he did so again in this interview. On Jerusalem, for example, he said: “I am the first who wanted to enforce Israeli sovereignty on the entire city. I admit it. I am not trying to justify retroactively what I did for 35 years. For a large portion of these years, I was unwilling to look at reality in all its depth.”

He said that maintaining sovereignty over an undivided Jerusalem, Israel’s official policy, would involve bringing 270,000 Palestinians inside Israel’s security barrier. It would mean a continuing risk of terrorist attacks against civilians like those carried out this year by Jerusalem Palestinian residents with front-end loaders.

“A decision has to be made,” he said. “This decision is difficult, terrible, a decision that contradicts our natural instincts, our innermost desires, our collective memories, the prayers of the Jewish people for 2,000 years.”

The government’s public stand on Jerusalem until now has been to assert that the status of the city was not under discussion. But Mr. Olmert made clear that the eastern, predominantly Arab, sector had to be yielded “with special solutions” for the holy sites.

On peace with the Palestinians, Mr. Olmert said in the interview: “We face the need to decide but are not willing to tell ourselves, yes, this is what we have to do. We have to reach an agreement with the Palestinians, the meaning of which is that in practice we will withdraw from almost all the territories, if not all the territories. We will leave a percentage of these territories in our hands, but will have to give the Palestinians a similar percentage, because without that there will be no peace.”

Elsewhere in the interview, when discussing a land swap with the Palestinians, he said the exchange would have to be “more or less one to one.”

Mr. Olmert also addressed the question of Syria, saying that Israel had to be prepared to give up the Golan Heights but that in turn Damascus knew it had to change the nature of its relationship with Iran and its support for Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia.

On Iran, Mr. Olmert said Israel would act within the international system, adding: “Part of our megalomania and our loss of proportions is the things that are said here about Iran. We are a country that has lost a sense of proportion about itself.”

Reaction from the Israeli right was swift. Avigdor Lieberman, who leads the Yisrael Beiteinu party, said on the radio that Mr. Olmert was “endangering the existence of the State of Israel irresponsibly.”

He added that those who thought Israel’s problem was a lack of defined borders — as Mr. Olmert stated in the interview — “are ignoramuses who don’t understand anything, and they invite war.”

As they reacted to Mr. Olmert’s remarks, Palestinian negotiators said it was satisfying to hear Mr. Olmert’s words but they said the words did not match what he had offered them so far. Yasser Abed Rabbo, a senior Palestinian official, told Palestinian Radio that it would have been better if Mr. Olmert had taken this position while in office rather than while leaving it and that Mr. Olmert had not yet presented a detailed plan for a border between Israel and a Palestinian state.

In theory, Mr. Olmert will continue peace negotiations while awaiting the new government. But analysts generally say that having been forced to resign his post, he will not be able to close a deal.

French Muslim students find have in Catholic schools

From the NY Times

Mr. Chamoux, a slow-moving, jovial man, has been here 20 years and seems to know each student by name. Under a crucifix in his cramped office, he extolled the virtues of Catholic schools. “We practice religious freedom; the public schools don’t,” he said. “We teach the national curriculum. Religious activities are entirely optional.”

“If I banned the head scarf, half the girls wouldn’t go to school at all,” he added. “I prefer to have them here, talk to them and tell them that they have a choice. Many actually take it off after a while. My goal is that by the time they graduate they have made a conscious choice, one way or the other.”

Defenders of secularism retort that such leniency could encourage other special requests, and anti-Western values like the oppression of women.

“The head scarf is a sexist sign, and discrimination between the sexes has no place in the republican school,” France’s minister of national education, Xavier Darcos, said in a telephone interview. “That is the fundamental reason why we are against it.”

Mr. Chamoux said he suspects that some pupils (“a small minority,” he said) wear the scarf because of pressure from family. He acknowledged that parents routinely demand exemptions from swimming lessons for daughters who, when denied, present a medical certificate and miss class anyway. Recently, he said, he put his foot down when students asked to remove the crucifix in a classroom they wanted for communal prayers during Ramadan, which in France ends on Tuesday.

The biology teacher at St. Mauront has been challenged on Darwin’s theory of evolution, and history class can get heated during discussions of the Crusades or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In 2001, after the Sept. 11 attacks, some Muslim students shocked the staff by showing glee, Mr. Chamoux recalled.

The school deals swiftly with offensive comments, he said, but also tries to respect Islam. It takes Muslim holidays into account for parent-teacher meetings. For two years now, it has offered optional Arabic-language instruction — in part to steer students away from Koran classes in neighborhood mosques believed to preach radical Islam.

When Zohra Hanane, the parent of a Muslim student, was asked why she chose Catholic school for her daughter, Sabrina, her answer was swift. “We share the same God,” she said.

But faith is not the only argument. Even though Ms. Hanane, who is a single mother and currently unemployed, struggles to meet the annual fee at St. Mauront of 249 euros ($364) — unusually low, because the school receives additional state subsidies and has spartan facilities — she said it was worth it because she did not want her children with “the wrong crowd” in the projects.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Is my doctor a quack or a genius?

Got this from a cycling forum. Thanks, William.

I dunno,

Is my Doctor a quack, or a genius???

Our most recent conversation:

Q: I've heard that cardiovascular exercise can prolong life; is this true?
A: Your heart is only good for so many beats, and that 's it... don't waste them on exercise. Everything wears out eventually. Speeding up your heart will not make you live longer; that's like saying you can extend the life of your car by driving it faster. Want to live longer? Take a nap.

Q: Should I cut down on meat and eat more fruits and vegetables?
A: You must grasp logistical efficiencies. What does a cow eat? Hay and corn. And what are these? Vegetables. So a steak is nothing more than an efficient mechanism of delivering vegetables to your system. Need grain? Eat chicken. Beef is also a good source of field grass (green leafy vegetable). And a pork chop can give you 100% of your recommended daily allowance of vegetable products.

Q: Should I reduce my alcohol intake?
A: No, not at all. Wine is made from fruit.

Brandy is distilled wine, that means they take the water out of the fruity bit so you get even more of the goodness that way. Beer is also made out of grain.

Bottoms up!

Q: How can I calculate my body/fat ratio?
A: Well, if you have a body and you have fat, your ratio is one to one. If you have two bodies, your ratio is two to one, etc.

Q: What are some of the advantages of participating in a regular exercise program?
A: Can't think of a single one, sorry. My philosophy is: No Pain...Good!

Q: Aren't fried foods bad for you?

.... Foods are fried these days in vegetable oil.. In fact, they're permeated in it. How could getting more vegetables be bad for you?

Q: Will sit-ups help prevent me from getting a little soft around the middle?
A: Definitely not! When you exercise a muscle, it gets bigger. You should only be doing sit-ups if you want a bigger stomach.

Q: Is chocolate bad for me?

Are you crazy?


Cocoa beans! Another vegetable!!! It's the best feel-good food around!

Q: Is swimming good for your figure?
A: If swimming is good for your figure, explain whales to me.

Q: Is getting in-shape important for my lifestyle?
A: Hey! 'Round' is a shape!

Well, William I hope this has cleared up any misconceptions you may have had about food and diets.

And remember:

'Life should NOT be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways - Chardonnay in one hand - chocolate in the other - body thoroughly used up, totally worn out and screaming 'WOO HOO, What a Ride'

AND.....Don't forget,

1. The Japanese eat very little fat and suffer fewer heart attacks than Americans.

2. The Mexicans eat a lot of fat and suffer fewer heart attacks than Americans.

3. The Chinese drink very little red wine and suffer fewer heart attacks than Americans.

4. The Italians drink a lot of red wine and suffer fewer heart attacks than Americans.

5. The Germans drink a lot of beers and eat lots of sausages and fats and suffer fewer heart attacks than Americans.


Eat and drink what you like. Speaking English is apparently what kills you.

Far-right, anti-immigrant parties make headway in Austria elections

The New York Times has a report on far-tight parties making political gains in Austria's recent elections.

“If you ask the voters, ‘Are you economically or socially in a better situation than two or three years before?’ then a clear majority says, ‘No, we are worse,’ ” said Peter Filzmaier, a political science professor at Danube University in Krems. “This is a typical mood that helps populist parties. Then there’s a profit for right-wing groups that say it is foreigners and other countries that are to blame.”

Britta Schellenberg, a research analyst on right-wing radicalism in Europe at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, said that xenophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment had joined with increasing antipathy toward globalization and capitalism. “This is exploited by the radical right more frequently than even a couple of years ago,” she said.

CEOs who cashed in as their banks crashed

MSN Money has a slideshow featuring CEOs who made millions of dollars as their banks crashed and jeopardized the financial system in the US.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Lessons from 124 banking blow ups: U.S. probably won't make money on the bailout

I've previously mentioned that the bailout is probably necessary to get credit flowing to U.S. firms again, which would avert numerous job losses. Additionally, Warren Buffett, an eminence grises of the U.S. business scene has contended that the Treasury stands to make money on the purchased assets in the long run if they play it right.

However, the DealBook blog on NY Times cites an International Monetary Fund report done by Merrill Lynch that analyzes 124 previous banking failures. They found that the average fiscal cost was 13.3% of a nation's gross domestic product - and that's net of any recoveries down the road.

In other words, the U.S. Treasury isn't likely to profit off the bailout program. That said, because the U.S. crisis is unfolding much faster than Japan's, for example, the U.S. is also responding much earlier than some other crises.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Sarah Palin on her foreign policy experience

Translation: I have zero foreign policy experience.

A few days ago, Campbell Brown on CNN exhorted the McCain campaign to stop treating Gov. Palin like a "delicate flower" ready to wilt and let her face the media. Brown contended, perhaps somewhat sarcastically, that the Governor should be ready to face the media right now.

Sarah Palin had better learn fast, or else Joe Biden will tear her to bits in the Vice Presidential debates.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Archbishop of York advocates for international aid but shows complete lack of understanding of economics

Archbishop John Sentamu has this call to action on his webpage:

Dr. Sentamu said: "Tomorrow morning I will attend a meeting to launch a campaign of 'Education for All' as part of the global effort to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, including the eradication of global poverty by 2015. Of course for such a target to be achieved there needs to be stable financial systems. There needs to be stable financial systems. Without a solid global economic base to work from, the eradication of world poverty would be an even greater task. But as one columnist recently noted, "the President of the United States recently announced a $700 billion bailout plans for banks and financial institutions. One of the ironies about this financial crisis is that it makes action on poverty look utterly achievable. It would cost $5 billion to save six million children's lives. World leaders could find 140 times that amount for the banking system in a week. How can they now tell us that action for the poorest on the planet is too expensive?"

It's sandwiched in between a misunderstanding of stock markets and a call to subsidize English farmers.

In the first paragraph, he brands as "robbers" those who profited by short selling shares of HBOS, a UK mortgage lender. Short selling occurs when you borrow a stock on margin (i.e. with a line of credit from your broker) and you sell it. You are essentially betting that the stock will decline. You cover your short position when you purchase the shares back.

Lehman Brothers' fate was in some ways sealed by short sellers. A huge wave of selling drove the stock down into the single digits. With the stock price so low and no willing buyers, it would have been impossible for the company to raise capital and stay solvent. However, the underlying reason why Lehman failed was because it was poorly run. You cannot hope to short sell a company like Johnson and Johnson into the ground, because J&J didn't lever itself to the hilt and make bad bets on mortgages. Its business is very stable. Lehman's was not. I don't follow the UK stock market, but it's likely that HBOS' business was more like Lehman's than J&J's.

In other ways, HBOS probably deserved its fate, which by the way is not so bad. They were bought out by Lloyds TSB - to be honest, I don't think this is such a good move by Lloyds, but that's another story. Either way, John Sentamu doesn't understand how markets operate. And while it's a core tenet of Christianity to have compassion on all people, I don't think we need to extend this to decrying the demise of a corporation that deserved to fail.

If they can find $700 billion to support the market, will the Government - and bankers – help bail out our farmers? Farmers are facing ruin not because of bad investment, or speculation. Can we help secure the vital food security they provide?"

I've explained elsewhere that food subsidies in the US often come at the expense of farmers in the Global South, who aren't able to price their goods to compete with US farmers. If not for the subsidies, farmers in the Global South could possibly make more money exporting crops to the US. Worse, sometimes it's cheaper for countries to import food from the US, especially the subsidized food aid to Africa - when there is food on the ground that could be bought if the US were to donate cash directly.

I don't believe that the UK operates a crop export program in the guise of food aid. But I'd still worry that John is advocating subsidizing UK farmers at the expense of farmers in the Global South - such as in his native Uganda.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Coal: unfortunately, will be a major part of the U.S. and Chinese energy mix for years to come

As reported by an NY Times article, the use of coal in the U.S. is only expected to increase going forward, even though renewables will form a larger slice of the pie.

The U.S. Department of Energy projects that overall energy production will rise by an estimated 20% from 2006 to 2030. There's a fairly large uncertainty around that estimate, which ranges from -5% to 36%.

Coal also contains probably the most carbon per unit energy among other potential fuels. Oil has less carbon per unit energy, but since it's far more expensive, it isn't economical for power generation. The article maintains that natural gas supplies in North America are dwindling, and so the use of natural gas should remain flat.

On the other hand, I've heard that total U.S. supplies of natural gas are pretty abundant, with all the new extraction from shale formations. There are folks who are actually forecasting a supply glut, although I don't agree with that argument yet.

Either way, in addition to improving the U.S. energy mix, Americans will have to consume less energy. The government will need to provide incentives to do so.

And then there's China. China wasn't covered in the article, but coal is very abundant in China. China's economy and standard of living are growing very rapidly. We can expect them to open many, many new coal plants in the coming years. Not good news.

In Greece, Meditterran diet declines and kids become overweight

The New York Times has an article on the rise of fast food among the younger generation in Greece, of all places. The effects are sad, to say the least - pediatric obesity is increasing drastically.

US-Canadian group plans to curb carbon emissions

From the New York Times:

An alliance of seven Western states and four Canadian provinces unveiled a blueprint on Tuesday for the most far-reaching effort in North America to curb emissions linked to climate change.

The draft of the proposal by the alliance, the Western Climate Initiative, is intended to achieve a 15 percent cut in greenhouse-gas emissions by 2020. It cuts emissions from industries across the economy and from transportation and housing; a plan being put into effect by 10 northeastern states covers only the electric utility industry.

But for all the breadth of the group’s plan, it also reflects the affected industries’ ability to win significant concessions to ease their entry into a new system, under which, for the first time, they must pay for emissions of heat-trapping gases, like carbon dioxide.

The draft plan, which will not take effect until 2012, sets a mandatory cap on greenhouse-gas emissions that would rachet down year by year. The industries covered, like electric utilities or petroleum refiners, would be granted allowances and would have to use one allowance to cover every metric ton of heat-trapping gases they emit.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, a Republican, said in a statement, “We’re sending a strong message to our federal governments that states and provinces are moving forward in the absence of federal action, and we’re setting the stage for national programs that are just as aggressive.”

California, which passed its own groundbreaking legislation on combating climate change two years ago, is the largest of the states involved and one of the most experienced in broad-based regulation. The others in the alliance are Arizona, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Washington and the Canadian provinces of British Columbia, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec.

The political, economic and geographic disparity among the partners has led to strains. Both houses of the Arizona State Legislature passed a measure earlier this year requiring legislative approval for state participation; the bill was vetoed by Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat.

“It’s a very diverse group of states,” said Ned Farquhar, a climate-policy expert with the Albuquerque offices of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental organization. “And it’s biting off a much bigger bite. Naturally there’s going to be a broader range of opinion inside the partners.”

Unlike the final plan of the northeastern states, the western plan, reflecting industry suggestions, requires that only 10 percent of the allowances to emit gases be sold at auction; the rest are given to individual industries. The allowances may be traded in a secondary market, which effectively sets a price for carbon-dioxide emissions.

A similar approach, tried in the first so-called cap-and-trade program in Europe, led to windfall profits for some industries.

The northeastern states are auctioning off more than 90 percent of their allowances; the first auction is set to take place on Thursday.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Genital mutilation victim gets new chance at asylum in U.S.

In my health law class, we studied the case (In re R.T.) of a survivor of female genital cutting who filed for asylum in the U.S. As we know, the immigration system in the U.S. has often seen fit to act mercilessly and above the law, and the Board of Immigration Appeals denied her asylum based on the fact that she wouldn't be subject to continued persecution. The Justice Department has just reversed that decision.

It's very interesting to see that the Board of Immigration Appeals is part of the Justice Department, and hence of the executive branch of government. Perhaps the BIA would be better off in the judicial branch, which is nominally independent of the executive and far less subject to political machinations.

The article was published in the LA Times.

In a surprise decision welcomed by human rights groups, the Justice Department moved Monday to expand the opportunities for asylum for women subjected to genital mutilation.

Atty. Gen. Michael B. Mukasey, a former federal judge, threw out a decision by an arm of the Justice Department denying asylum to a 28-year-old woman from Mali who had been subjected to genital mutilation as a girl.

Forms of genital mutilation -- often performed under unsanitary conditions with rudimentary instruments -- are common as coming-of-age rituals in more than two dozen countries.

The September 2007 ruling by the U.S. Board of Immigration Appeals and the panel's denial in April 2008 of a request for reconsideration had drawn criticism from immigration and refugee groups and medical ethicists. The board concluded that because the woman had already been mutilated, she no longer had a legitimate fear of further persecution, which is required under U.S. law before asylum can be granted.

But that decision, which was at odds with several federal courts, was replete with "legal and factual errors," Mukasey said in Monday's six-page order.

"To begin with, the board based its analysis on a false premise: that female genital mutilation is a 'one-time' act that cannot be repeated on the same women," he wrote. "As several courts have recognized, female genital mutilation is indeed capable of repletion."

He cited a case where an asylum applicant's vaginal opening was sewn shut five times after being opened to allow for sexual intercourse and childbirth.

"The board was wrong to focus on whether the future harm to life or freedom that [the applicant] feared would take the 'identical' form," he added.

The Malian woman had expressed concern that if she were deported she would be forced into marriage, and that any daughters she might have would also face mutilation.

Mukasey's decision to intervene came as the woman's case was being appealed to the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in Virginia. His order -- that the immigration panel reconsider its position -- does not guarantee the woman permanent residency in the U.S., but legal observers said they doubted the agency would oppose the move.

"I think the response now is one of overwhelming relief and jubilation . . . and a feeling of hope that this will set a precedent for future cases," said Jen Smyers, a policy analyst with the immigration and refugee program at Church World Service, a New York-based humanitarian cooperative of churches.

Kevin Johnson, an immigration specialist and dean of the UC Davis School of Law, said the action was something of a surprise.

"This administration has been pretty tough on women who claim persecution," he said. "It is a positive step in the right direction.

"It is not a particularly human gesture to turn your back on people who have been previously persecuted. It is not a particularly generous way of looking at our asylum laws."

Since 1996, the U.S. government has recognized female genital mutilation as a form of persecution that could entitle a woman to asylum in at least some cases.

Employee Free Choice Act: labor v. business

The Employee Free Choice Act in the U.S. would make it easier for workers to unionize. There are numerous documented instances of management interference in unionization drives and harassment of union supporters. I don't support a lot of the labor movement's positions (e.g. the United Auto Workers' opposition to improved fuel standards), but workers have the fundamental human rights of freedom of association and freedom to join trade unions to protect their interests.

Businessweek features differing views on the EFCA from a business leader and one of the sponsors of the Act. It makes for good reading.

Monday, September 22, 2008

How Sweden solved its bank crisis

In 1992 - not all that long ago - Sweden had its own banking crisis. Similar causes, similar effects as in the U.S. The government required banks to issue warrants in exchange for taking over bad loans. A warrant is a negotiable security allowing the holder to buy shares in the future at some specified price. The Swedish government, in other words, took an equity interest in the banks. It would have been able to exert pressure on management and sell its shares when the banks recovered.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson proposed to allow the Treasury to buy up to $700 billion of loans. The proposal needs to pass Congress. Democrats seem determined to help "Main Street" (the public, especially investing public, as opposed to "Wall Street", or professional investors) at the same time by inserting miscellaneous other provisions, like allowing bankruptcy judges to modify terms of bad loans and limiting executive compensation. Additionally, the Democrats are rightly concerned about the lack of oversight provisions.

The Bush administration generally cannot be trusted. Also, excessive oversight could limit the Treasury's maneuverability when purchasing securities to stabilize the market. I'd trust Hank Paulson, but I agree in principle that the Treasury needs to report to someone.

Additionally, it seemed odd that early versions of the proposal left out having the Treasury take warrants in the companies it helped. What Sweden did makes perfect sense. Further, the government already did this with AIG. However, Businessweek reports that the Senate and the White House are coming to agreement on some terms, and these include the issuing of warrants.

Meanwhile, the crisis is urgent. I'd prefer that aid to homeowners be debated thoroughly in Congress and put into a later bill.

Now, let's hope the corporate lobbyists don't poison the bill, that homeowners will receive some sort of reasonable aid and most importantly, that the U.S. will learn from this crisis to regulate its banks and monetary policy properly.

Venezuela expels 2 after human rights report

Venezuela recently expelled two human rights monitors from Human Rights Watch, accusing them of collaborating with the United States. This is an implausible assertion, given HRW's criticism of the Bush regime.

President Hugo Chávez’s government expelled two employees of Human Rights Watch late Thursday night after chafing at their documentation of widespread political discrimination, intimidation of union members and a subservient judiciary.

Armed men in uniforms apprehended José Miguel Vivanco, a Chilean citizen who is the Americas director for the New York-based group, and Daniel Wilkinson, an American who is deputy director for the Americas, and placed them on a flight to São Paulo, Brazil, where they arrived on Friday morning.


The expulsion, broadcast partly on state television here, comes at a time of increasingly erratic actions by Mr. Chávez. In the last week, he expelled the American ambassador, rounded up military officers and accused them of plotting to kill him and clashed with the Vatican over its granting of political asylum to a political opponent.

The Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Mr. Vivanco violated the law by entering the country on a tourist visa to do human rights work. The ministry also said that Human Rights Watch, which is an outspoken critic of the Bush administration, was acting in concert with the United States government in a campaign of aggression against Venezuela.


In conservative Nepal, a tribune for the "Third Gender" speaks out

The Western concept of sexual orientation is separate in some ways from gender identity. In Nepal, it seems, all LGBT people are considered to be third gender. And they are slowly gaining political influence and conducting advocacy, as featured in a New York Times article. The intro:

SUNIL Babu Pant likes to take advantage of the frequent delays at Nepal’s newly elected Constituent Assembly. As the only openly gay member, he takes every opportunity to work on his homophobic colleagues, trying to convince them that contrary to what they were taught growing up in this very conservative country, homosexuals are just like any other people.

Mr. Pant, 35, a computer engineer by training, opens his laptop — an object of fascination to many in the assembly, who come from the rural hinterlands — and gives a PowerPoint presentation wherever he finds his audience.

“Kalpanaji, come join me,” Mr. Pant said during a break recently to a fellow parliamentarian, Kalpana Rana, inside a tent that serves as a canteen. Other lawmakers, there to kill time, began to move closer to his laptop.

“I have prepared this presentation for members of this assembly,” he said, giving them a beaming smile. The female members were too shy to join the crowd.

“There are some people on earth who consider themselves neither male nor female” he continued. “They like to be called third gender, which comprises roughly 10 percent of the total population.”

A man interrupted. “Oh, yes, I had seen this term in a medical book I have at home,” said the man, Mathabar Singh Thapa, of the rightist Janamukti Party in the 601-member assembly. “But, I have a question. Do they have genitals?”

“They do,” said Mr. Pant, trying not to giggle. “But, they don’t have natural sexual orientation.”

He then put a political spin on his presentation. “South Africa’s Constitution already has a provision that the third genders are not to be discriminated against,” he said. “Following the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, led by V. I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky, Russia became the first nation to legalize homosexuality.” The members listen attentively until the bell rings, summoning them back to the assembly hall.

If Mr. Pant, who represents the tiny Communist Party of Nepal (United), recognizes the long, uphill battle he faces, he never admits it. In a society where premarital sex is strongly taboo and where a leader of the ruling Maoist party, Dev Gurung, once called gay people “the product of capitalism,” it is a lonely fight.

But all is not bleak for Mr. Pant. This has been an extraordinary time in Nepal, with the declaration of a democratic republic in May, the abdication of the king in June and a new constitution in the works. Moreover, the now-dominant Maoists emphasize that theirs is the party of the poor, the minorities and the disadvantaged, and they have recognized “third gender” people as “sexual minorities.” The phrase “third gender” has been used to refer to gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, the transgendered and others.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Beyond just war theory

Dr. Valerie Dixon has an article on Sojourners.

Beyond Just War Theory
by Valerie Elverton Dixon 09-16-2008

Just War Theory is a mode of analysis that lists criteria by which war may be considered righteous before, during and after its execution. The criteria to consider before a war are: declared by legitimate authority, just cause, right intent, reasonable hope of success, last resort, and announcement. The criteria to consider during war are: non combatant immunity, proportionality of damage to good that will result, limitations on weapons and tactics. Young scholars in Christian ethics are developing criteria to consider after war such as reparations, truth and reconciliation, and refugees.

Just war theory has a long history inside of Christianity. It is a middle way between holy war and pacifism. However, Just Peace Theory occupies the ground between just war theory and pacifism. From the perspective of just peace theory, just war theory is only war. It presupposes war. It comes into the discourse at the moment when a conflict reaches a crises point and the possibility of war. The conversation becomes about making the case for war using just war principles. In contrast, just peace theory presupposes peace. The discourse becomes about what the nation is doing to preserve the peace. Further, just peace theory moves beyond just war theory because just war theory is unrealistic in the face of the nature of war itself.

For example: before a war we consider just cause. In reality, the causes of war are always multiple, complex and entangled. So, underneath arguments about defense and humanitarian intervention there often lies an economic intent. Further, once war begins, no one can ever know how successful a nation will be in executing the war. Just war during war calls for the immunity of innocents, the protection of noncombatants from being targets of violence. Realistically, innocents always die in war. Some will object that this is an argument of moral equivalency. It is. The blood and tears are equivalent; people are equivalently killed and physically and psychologically injured. An innocent ecology is equivalently wounded.

Moreover, the nature of warfare is to defeat an enemy by any means necessary, and this includes using weapons and tactics that will demoralize the enemy even if that means killing innocents. Just war theory cannot come to terms with this reality.

Just peace theory understands that peacemaking happens every day, that the only just war is the war that we prevent because there is no such thing as victory in war. War itself is a defeat of human reason, communication, truth and respect. At the same time, just peace theory recognizes there may be times when a military force ought to deploy to protect vulnerable populations or to enforce a peace agreement.

September 21 is the UN International Day of Peace and Global Ceasefire. It is a day when the world can pause to think about ways to make justice and peace the project and the goal of daily life.

Dr. Valerie Elverton Dixon is an independent scholar who publishes lectures and essays at JustPeaceTheory.com. She received her Ph.D. in Religion and Society from Temple University and taught Christian Ethics at United Theological Seminary and Andover Newton Theological School

Friday, September 19, 2008

Where AIG went wrong

For a brief description of where AIG went wrong, read this article on Businessweek.

I should note that Hank Greenberg presided over AIG when it set itself up for this mess. As the article notes, he maintained that all AIG needed was a short term loan to get through its liquidity crisis. It is at least partly his fault that AIG is where it is now and he deserves no sympathy.

U.S. taxpayers should note that they effectively own an 80% stake in AIG. The Federal Reserve is loaning them up to $85 billion at around 11% interest. If AIG survives most of the upside in its share price will accrue to the U.S. taxpayer. Let's hope, then, that AIG makes it.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Singapore supports Myanmar's government

The Straits Times reports that some Myanmar nationals who are working or studying in Singapore decided to attend a protest against their government.

Gatherings of 5 or more people without a permit are illegal in Singapore, so it is true that the affected nationals broke the law. However, the Singapore government's decision to not renew the visas of the affected Myanmar nationals shows that Singapore is basically on the side of Myanmar's government.

Besides, the law is crap, anyway.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has long refused to pressure Myanmar's military dictatorship to step down. ASEAN leaders allege that their work is done behind the scenes. However, Singapore could simply have overlooked a minor infraction. Their attempt to deport these people bodes ill for hopes that ASEAN is working for change in Myanmar at all.

To save his marriage, a man gave PEACE a chance

Fiona Morgan, writing for Indy Weekly, details the story of a domestic abuser who enrolled in a batterers' treatment program, called People Ending Abuse through Counseling and Education.

It's not easy. In fact, Jack, the person featured in the story, relapsed after his first 26 week session. His wife left him and he re-enrolled.

Michigan Republicans plan to challenge voters based on foreclosure lists, or: how to conduct election fraud in a democratic country

Michigan Messenger has a disturbing claim: Michigan Republicans plan to foreclose African-American voters

The chairman of the Republican Party in Macomb County, Michigan, a key swing county in a key swing state, is planning to use a list of foreclosed homes to block people from voting in the upcoming election as part of the state GOP’s effort to challenge some voters on Election Day.

“We will have a list of foreclosed homes and will make sure people aren’t voting from those addresses,” party chairman James Carabelli told Michigan Messenger in a telephone interview earlier this week. He said the local party wanted to make sure that proper electoral procedures were followed.

State election rules allow parties to assign “election challengers” to polls to monitor the election. In addition to observing the poll workers, these volunteers can challenge the eligibility of any voter provided they “have a good reason to believe” that the person is not eligible to vote. One allowable reason is that the person is not a “true resident of the city or township.”

The Michigan Republicans’ planned use of foreclosure lists is apparently an attempt to challenge ineligible voters as not being “true residents.”

One expert questioned the legality of the tactic.

“You can’t challenge people without a factual basis for doing so,” said J. Gerald Hebert, a former voting rights litigator for the U.S. Justice Department who now runs the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington D.C.-based public-interest law firm. “I don’t think a foreclosure notice is sufficient basis for a challenge, because people often remain in their homes after foreclosure begins and sometimes are able to negotiate and refinance.”

As for the practice of challenging the right to vote of foreclosed property owners, Hebert called it, “mean-spirited.”

GOP ties to state’s largest foreclosure law firm

The Macomb GOP’s plans are another indication of how John McCain’s campaign stands to benefit from the burgeoning number of foreclosures in the state. McCain’s regional headquarters are housed in the office building of foreclosure specialists Trott & Trott. The firm’s founder, David A. Trott, has raised between $100,000 and $250,000 for the Republican nominee.

The Macomb County party’s plans to challenge voters who have defaulted on their house payments is likely to disproportionately affect African-Americans who are overwhelmingly Democratic voters. More than 60 percent of all sub-prime loans — the most likely kind of loan to go into default — were made to African-Americans in Michigan, according to a report issued last year by the state’s Department of Labor and Economic Growth.

Challenges to would-be voters

Statewide, the Republican Party is gearing up for a comprehensive voter challenge campaign, according to Denise Graves, party chair for Republicans in Genessee County, which encompasses Flint. The party is creating a spreadsheet of election challenger volunteers and expects to coordinate a training with the regional McCain campaign, Graves said in an interview with Michigan Messenger.

Whether the Republicans will challenge voters with foreclosed homes elsewhere in the state is not known.

Kelly Harrigan, deputy director of the GOP’s voter programs, confirmed that she is coordinating the group’s “election integrity” program. Harrigan said the effort includes putting in place a legal team, as well as training election challengers. She said the challenges to voters were procedural rather than personal. She referred inquiries about the vote challenge program to communications director Bill Nowling, who promised information but did not return calls.

Party chairman Carabelli said that the Republican Party is training election challengers to “make sure that [voters] are who they say who they are.”

When asked for further details on how Republicans are compiling challenge lists, he said, “I would rather not tell you all the things we are doing.”

Vote suppression: Not an isolated effort

Carabelli is not the only Republican Party official to suggest the targeting of foreclosed voters. In Ohio, Doug Preisse, member of the board of elections in Franklin County (around the city of Columbus) and the chair of the local GOP, told The Columbus Dispatch that he has not ruled out challenging voters before the election due to foreclosure-related address issues.

Hebert, the voting-rights lawyer, sees a connection between Priesse’s remarks and Carabelli’s plans.

“At a minimum what you are seeing is a fairly comprehensive effort by the Republican Party, a systematic broad-based effort to put up obstacles for people to vote,” he said. “Nobody is contending that these people are not legally registered to vote.

“When you are comprehensively challenging people to vote,” Hebert went on, “your goals are two-fold: One is you are trying to knock people out from casting ballots; the other is to create a slowdown that will discourage others,” who see a long line and realize they can’t afford to stay and wait.

Challenging all voters registered to foreclosed homes could disrupt some polling places, especially in the Detroit metropolitan area. According to the real estate Web site RealtyTrac, one in every 176 households in Wayne County, metropolitan Detroit, received a foreclosure filing during the month of July. In Macomb County, the figure was one household in every 285, meaning that 1,834 homeowners received the bad news in just one month. The Macomb County foreclosure rate puts it in the top three percent of all U.S. counties in the number of distressed homeowners.

Wayne, Oakland, Macomb, Kent and Genessee counties were — in that order — the counties with the most homeowners facing foreclosure, according to RealtyTrac. As of July, there were more than 62,000 foreclosure filings in the entire state.

Joe Rozell, director of elections for Oakland County in suburban Detroit, acknowledged that challenges such as those described by Carabelli are allowed by law but said they have the potential to create long lines and disrupt the voting process. With 890,000 potential voters closely divided between Democratic and Republican, Oakland County is a key swing county of this swing state.

According to voter challenge directives handed down by Republican Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land, voter challenges need only be “based on information obtained through a reliable source or means.”

“But poll workers are not allowed to ask the reason” for the challenges, Rozell said. In other words, Republican vote challengers are free to use foreclosure lists as a basis for disqualifying otherwise eligible voters.

David Lagstein, head organizer with the Michigan Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), described the plans of the Macomb GOP as “crazy.”

“You would think they would think, ‘This is going to look too heartless,’” said Lagstein, whose group has registered 200,000 new voters statewide this year and also runs a foreclosure avoidance program. “The Republican-led state Senate has not moved on the anti-predatory lending bill for over a year and yet [Republicans] have time to prey on those who have fallen victim to foreclosure to suppress the vote.”

Now GM, Chrysler and Ford want a bailout too

CNN Money has a story on the Big 3 auto firms and their request for $50 billion in low cost loans. They say, now Wall Street has been bailed out. Please bail us out too.

The Feds' rescue of AIG has the firm paying over 11% interest for a 2 year, $85 billion loan. The Federal Reserve gets a warrant for an 80% stake in the company - if/when they choose to exercise it, they get 80% of AIG just like that. Basically, the loan enables AIG to liquidate large portions of itself just like that. If AIG survives, the Federal Reserve - and US taxpayers - get most of the upside in the share price. This isn't a bailout. Shouldn't US taxpayers get the same deal for a loan to the Big 3?

Additionally, AIG liquidating itself in a controlled fashion is already causing a lot of damage. If AIG were to go under in an uncontrolled fashion, that would be disastrous. I've heard that compared to an extinction level event in the financial sector. Letting the Big 3 go under would be very bad for the state of Michigan, but the US as a whole would survive. And given their history of mismanagement and lobbying against better fuel economy, maybe the US would be better off in the long run.

Lastly, the US government already bailed Chrysler out once in 1979. The company was in financial distress. The government gave them a loan. Chrysler had been jealous of GM and Ford and their rapid expansion in international markets. Chrysler took a lot of risks in emulating them, only to get hit by a recession in the 1970s. Chrysler obviously didn't learn its lesson, and neither did GM and Ford. In fact, the Reagan administration had to restrict Japanese auto imports in the early 1980s.

David Leonhardt, writing for the New York Times, suggests that perhaps it's best not to bail the automakers out. I agree.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Why Our @*$! Tax Code Is So Confusing

Bill Bischoll, a CPA, writes an article encouraging policymakers to simply the tax code and to stop using it to micromanage society.

THE RECENT CONVENTIONS included plenty of rhetoric about taxes. But the politicians in both parties missed the boat. Whether you think we need tax cuts or tax hikes, what we need even more is tax simplicity.

Our tax system is falling apart because it's become way too complicated. Tax breaks are not as helpful as advertised because many taxpayers can't figure out how to use them. Tax increases don't raise the expected revenue because many taxpayers are unwilling to spend extra time and money to comply only to get a bigger tax bill for their trouble.

If you doubt that tax complexity is a huge problem, consider the fact that my personal copy of the Internal Revenue Code takes up over 8,500 pages of very fine print. Then there are many thousands of pages of regulations and other guidance put out by the IRS in efforts to explain how the tax law provisions are supposed to work. Then there are many more thousands of pages of court decisions dealing with unresolved disputes about how they are supposed to work. I can't keep up with all this stuff, even though it's my profession. The average individual or small-business owner has no hope.

And it's getting worse — fast! Just in the last nine months, Congress passed six significant new tax laws. Every one of them added more complexity, and there will be more new laws before year-end. This is change we can be disgusted with.

When guys like me who make a living from dealing with tax complications start ranting about too much complexity, it's time for you ordinary citizens out there to demand an end to the nonsense. Here's what you should be howling about to your Congresspersons:

Be Honest About Tax Rates
Much of our tax system's complexity is caused by stealthy provisions intended to penalize certain categories of taxpayers without explicitly raising anybody's tax rates. That way the politicians can advertise low rates for all while keeping their hands in your pocket. For example:

The dreaded alternative minimum tax, which hits many middle-income folks by disallowing deductions for dependents and state and local income and property taxes.

Tricky rules that can cause you to pay federal income tax on up to 85% of your Social Security benefits — even though you already paid income tax on Social Security taxes when they were taken out of your salary or self-employment earnings.

Phase-out rules that reduce or eliminate the chance for middle-income folks to claim the child tax credit and education tax credits.

I could go on and on, but you get the idea. It's time to tell the politicians to be straight with you by raising or lowering your taxes with easy-to-understand rate changes. The current practice of granting well-advertised tax goodies and then sneakily taking them away from less-favored folks has got to stop.

Stop Trying to Micromanage the Economy With Tax Policy
In general, lower taxes tend to encourage legitimate economic activity, and higher taxes tend to do the opposite. But the politicians want to micromanage.

For example, after the devastating Gulf Coast hurricanes in 2005, Congress enacted a bunch of exceedingly complicated special tax breaks intended to help individuals and businesses rebuild. This was on top of many billions worth of direct relief from the Feds and many billions more from charitable donations. In my opinion, the tax breaks were unnecessary overkill, but they sure added lots more complexity. The beleaguered IRS is still trying to catch up on issuing guidance about how all the special breaks are supposed to work.

Another example is the absurd new tax credit of up to $7,500 for eligible home buyers. (For details, click here.) The credit is phased out at relatively low income levels, and it has to be paid back to the government over 15 years. After all the billions and billions the Feds will have to spend to bail out mortgage lenders and Freddie Mac (FRE: 0.39, -0.07, -15.21%) and Fannie Mae (FNM: 0.61, -0.13, -17.56%), this goofy credit is an insult to our intelligence. It's not going to make the housing market recover any faster, but it sure makes the Internal Revenue Code more complicated while adding billions to the deficit. Great idea!

Lower the Tax Rate on Big Companies and Eliminate Corporate Welfare
Large U.S. corporations face a 35% federal income tax rate on their domestic profits. This is one of the highest rates in the industrialized world. As a result, big companies pay untold amounts to lobby Congress for unadvertised tax breaks (better known as corporate welfare) and to devise tax-avoidance strategies (some legit and some not). The high U.S. tax rate also encourages companies to move operations overseas and keep the resulting profits over there. Why? Because they generally don't have to pay U.S. taxes on offshore profits until they bring them home. So they don't.

As a result, the amount of federal income taxes that big corporations actually pay is laughably low. Although I can't prove it, I'm sure that a major reduction in the corporate tax rate combined with an end to corporate welfare would be great for our economy. Plus we could cut a few hundred pages out of the Internal Revenue Code as a bonus. This isn't micromanagement. This is a big idea.

Put "Fairness" in the Proper Perspective
A few years ago, the politicians became aware that lots of grandparents and aunts and uncles are raising children of their relatives. In the name of "fairness" Congress changed the rules to allow these nice grandparents and aunts and uncles to claim tax breaks, like dependency exemption deductions and child tax credits, for the kids they are selflessly supporting. The unfortunate result was rules that are so hideously complicated that I can barely understand them. Ordinary taxpayers have not a prayer. So now you have many cases where divorced moms and dads, along with grandparents and aunts and uncles, are all claiming the same tax breaks for the same kids. This is against the law, but it's up to the beleaguered IRS to issue audit notices and try to sort out the mess.

I can cite other examples of attempts to inject "fairness" into the tax law. Such attempts often result in rules that are too complicated to be effective — which isn't fair to anybody.

The Last Word
The purpose of our federal tax system should be to raise revenue in a reasonably predictable, efficient, and fair manner. The current system doesn't do any of these things — mainly because it's too complicated to work right. The problem has reached scary proportions, but don't blame the IRS. It's the politicians' fault. Now is a great time to tell them you want a simpler tax system if they want to keep their jobs.

Two immigration articles: dual citizens + citizenship and municipal ID cards

The LA Times has an article about dual citizens. There are those who question the loyalty of dual citizens and other bicultural people. Is it wrong to immigrate just for economic reasons? Is that like having a one-night stand? Is it wrong - or dangerous - to have some loyalty to two nations?

However, sometimes folks are able to take the best of the United States to their other home countries. The article features Salvador Gochez Gomez, who is teaching people in his native El Salvador the basics of democracy.

In another article, a coalition in Oakland, California is seeking a city ID card. This will bring undocumented immigrants out of the shadows and enable them to, for example, seek police protection without fear of being deported. Of course, the anti-immigrant nutcases are all over this.

The article also mentions certain American social groups who may have incomplete or inaccurate forms of formal identification, like the transgendered, the homeless and elderly African Americans born in the south. Many of the latter were born at home and lack birth certificates.

The dream for a human capital agenda

Edward Glaser has an op-ed on Boston.com about the need for increased support for American education.

ONE OF an economist's jobs is to be a sort of public scrooge, complaining loudly and obnoxiously when politicians come up with foolish ways of playing St. Nicholas with taxpayers' dollars. Subsidies for Iowa farmers or Detroit carmakers? Bah humbug. Gas tax holidays? Rent control? Certainly not. Go ahead and raise Bob Cratchit's rent.

But in this hopeful season of presidential change, even economists need to be for something. Some of my colleagues labor to improve healthcare; others fight for tax reform. My dream is that one, or both, candidates will make human capital the centerpiece of their campaign.

More than 70 percent of Americans routinely tell pollsters that the country is headed in the wrong direction. America will not change course just by electing a new president, no matter how much charisma or character that leader might have. America's future will instead depend on the skills of its citizens. In a remarkable new book, my colleagues Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz make a compelling case that America's 20th-century achievements owed much to our nation's once-robust investment in education, and that since the 1970s the growth in that investment has slowed dramatically.

Also since the mid-1970s, America has become much more unequal. Not all inequality is bad. I wouldn't mind if the guys who gave us Google earned even more, given their contributions to society. I do, however, care deeply that millions of Americans seem to have reaped, at best, modest benefits from the past 30 years of technological change.

Scrooge-like economists stress that most means of fighting inequality carry large costs. Progressive taxation reduces the incentives for entrepreneurship. Taxes on capital gains reduce investment. Allegedly redistributive regulations, like rent control, restrict the supply of things, like apartments, that should be abundant. Large welfare programs create the prospect of a permanent, government-funded underclass.

By contrast, investing in human capital offers the potential for permanent increases in earnings that encourage work. Education increases the ability to deal with innovation, so that investing in skills today will make Americans better able to weather the storms of future technological changes.

The attractiveness of education, to liberals and conservatives, explains why President Bush and Senator Edward M. Kennedy came together to pass the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001. Despite the law's flaws, it was a legislative high point of the last decade. But it was a small intervention, relative to the size of the education sector, targeted at failing students and schools.

A national human capital agenda requires investing in all children, not just those who might be left behind, and it requires much more than $50 billion a year.

Such spending needs to be justified by more than just a desire to reduce inequality. The case for governmental investment in education reflects the fact all of us become more productive when our neighbors know more. The success of cities like Boston reflects the magic that occurs when knowledgeable people work and live around each other. As the share of adults in a metropolitan area with college degrees increases by 10 percent, the wages of a worker with a fixed education level increases by 8 percent. Area level education also seems to increase the production of innovations and speed economic growth.

American education is not just another arrow in a quiver of policy proposals, but it is the primary weapon, the great claymore, to fight a host of public ills. One can make a plausible case that improving American education would do as much to improve health outcomes as either candidate's health plans. [Editor: I disagree in this case. You also need the means for people to access healthcare and to have the infrastructure necessary to live healthily, and these go beyond just being more educated.] People with more years of schooling are less obese, smoke less, and live longer. Better-educated people are also more likely to vote and to build social capital by investing in civic organizations. [Ed: That said, he has a good point.]

Improving America's human capital requires more than just writing a large check. My next columns will outline the details of a Marshall Plan for American Education. Because education is both important and difficult, it should be at the center of the presidential political debates.

Edward L. Glaeser, a professor of economics at Harvard University, is director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Comments on the financial crisis

I don't usually comment on the markets unless there's a policy issue to be discussed. The capitalist pigs can take care of themselves. Markets go up in the long term, and the capitalist pigs will be fine in the long term.

However, the present crisis was brought about by short term thinking, a race to keep up with competitors, ineffective regulation of the markets and ineffective monetary policy.

As to the first two points, investment banks kept investing in mortgage related securities since everyone was making big profits doing it. Long term, this wasn't sustainable.

As to the point about ineffective regulation of the markets, I'm not saying that more regulations are good per se. I am saying that proper regulations could have forestalled the crisis, but these weren't put in place.

As to the last point about ineffective monetary policy, Alan Greenspan cut interest rates too low, which increased the money supply. He also refused to regulate the markets. In other words, much of the mess we are in is his fault.

I talked to a former financial planner who was discerning to enter the Episcopal clergy. She had given up hope in the financial markets. Personally, I wouldn't give up hope. However, the United States needs to make structural changes to contain the excesses of the financial system.

Edit: I should correct myself. Businesses go through booms and busts. It is life. Economies are highly complex, and they cannot be regulated down to the last detail even if it were desirable to do so. However, prudent regulations could have reduced the degree of the fallout.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Dobson crony prays that it rains on Democratic National Convention

As it turns out, it was the Republican National Convention that got canceled due to Hurricane Gustav.

This was on the Focus on the Family website. People are castigating Dobson et al for this.

Personally, I think Stuart Shepard (the smarmy guy in the video) was joking. Given that the Republicans are the ones who got rained out, I'm willing to be generous.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Greenpeace lauds less toxic iPods

An article by Computerworld describes how Apple's new iPods use fewer toxic chemicals, and have garnered positive feedback from Greenpeace.

In a posting to the Greenpeace Web site blog on Wednesday, Greenpeace blogger "tomD" gave Apple credit for making the new iPod nano using less toxic manufacturing processes, and encouraged the company to make good on a promise to remove toxic chemicals from computers, as well.

On Tuesday, Apple CEO Steve Jobs announced the fourth-generation iPod nano during a special press event in San Francisco. He described the new nano models as "the cleanest, toxic-free iPods we've ever built."

Apple says the new iPod nano is made using arsenic-free glass, and is free of Brominated Flame Retardants (BFRs), mercury and polyvinylchloride (PVC), and is made of more recyclable materials.

These changes are welcome by Greenpeace, the environmental group, which began a "Green My Apple" campaign to put public pressure on the company to improve its environmental record.

"While these iPods may rock what would really shake up the computer industry is if Apple sticks to its promise and becomes the first company to make personal computers free of toxic PVC and BFR's. That would be truly groundbreaking announcement," wrote tomD.

He explained that while it's relatively easy to make small electronics that don't produce large amounts of heat without such chemicals -- products like phones and iPods -- it requires much more clever engineering to avoid such uses in personal computers.

"Now what we'd really like for Christmas is to see Apple remove toxic chemicals from all its products, and announce a free, global recycling scheme. That would make a very tasty green Apple," tomD wrote.

Apple had long been resistant to feedback from Greenpeace. For example, if I remember right, Greenpeace had objected to the use of brominated flame retardants in plastic components. These contain bromine compounds, and make it harder for plastic to catch fire, which is of course safer.

However, when much electronics waste, or e-waste, is shipped to Africa and China for disposal. There, people strip out valuable metals like gold and copper in the microprocessors and wires, and burn the leftover plastic. If you throw plastic containing BFRs in a big fire, it will burn, and it will release bromine, which is toxic .

Apple's initiatives are laudable. However, we need to ask a deeper question: why are we accumulating so many material possessions in vain? I mean, not that I haven't accumulated my share of expensive but ultimately worthless crap, but it's not like we need all this.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Bribery scandal rocks Big Oil

MSN Money has a story on how a former Halliburton exec has pleaded guilty to being in cahoots with crooked foreign officials. He's now helping US investigators, and a much wider crackdown is expected to unfold.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Feast of Paul Jones, September 4

Merciful God, who sent your beloved Son to preach peace to Those who are far off and to those who are near: Raise up in this and every land witnesses, who, after the example of your servant Paul Jones, will stand firm in proclaiming the Gospel of the Prince of Peace, our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.

Paul Jones was the Episcopal Bishop of Utah from 1916 to 1918. You'll note those years coincide with the entry of the United States into World War I.

Those who believe in the Just War Theory commonly point to WWII as one of the examples of a (potentially) just war. However, WWII was linked inextricably to WWI. In fact, WWII was in many ways a continuation of WWI. And World War I was fought for no good reason at all. Europe had been militarizing and the ideology of nationalism was spreading. WWI was started by an assassination in Sarajevo, but if not for that, something else would have done it.

Paul Jones was a pacifist. This conflicted somewhat with the prevailing mood in the United States, as described in an article by The Witness:

Religious support for the war was strong even before the U.S. entered the conflict. In 1916, the Episcopal House of Bishops lauded those who promoted peace, but the bishops made it clear that Christians should be ready to serve the state in time of crisis:

"[America] must expect of every one of her citizens some true form of national service, rendered according to the capacity of each. No one can commute or delegate it; no one can be absolved from it. National preparedness is a clear duty."

Paul Jones, on the other hand, called war "unchristian".

Even if I think war may sometimes be the only possible choice, I agree that war is unchristian. God cannot possibly offer blessings when God's children fight with the intent to kill and conquer. There is always some way other than armed violence. If it seems like there is no alternative to armed conflict, then it just means you missed your chance for peaceful engagement earlier on.

Paul Jones was tried by the House of Bishops and made to resign. There is no other conclusion than that they were drawn in by the nationalist and militaristic mood of the times. And so, Paul's testimony offers some lessons for us today:

ones, who died in 1941, never again served as bishop. But his work for peace continued. He was a founder of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and its secretary for 10 years. He helped found the Episcopal Pacifist Fellowship, now the Episcopal Peace Fellowship. During World War II, he helped resettle Jews and others who fled Nazi Germany, and he argued for greater understanding in relations with Japan.

Jones' legacy today may be more important than before, says David Selzer, EPF chairperson.

"In a time of particularly high patriotism, Bishop Jones was loyal to the sense of seeing the Gospel as the Gospel of peace rather than the Gospel of vengeance."

See, I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you delight—indeed, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. 2But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?

For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; 3he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness.* 4Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years.

5 Then I will draw near to you for judgement; I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow, and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.

Malachi 3:1-5

Norway sells $853 million Rio stake on ethics grounds

Marketwatch reports that Norway's state pension fund is divesting from the miner Rio Tinto on environmental grounds. The main cause for concern seems to be gold mines. I've previously posted on how the US violated the sovereignty of the Western Shoshone people to steal their land for gold companies. Norway's divestiture is primarily about environmental concerns, but many gold and other mines worldwide are on land owned or occupied by indigenous peoples.

LONDON (MarketWatch) -- Norway's state-run fund that is funded by oil proceeds on Tuesday said it's divested its entire $853 million (4.8 billion Norwegian kroner) stake in mining giant Rio Tinto on ethical grounds.

The Government Pension Fund -- Global sold its stake on concerns that Rio Tinto is contributing to severe environmental damage.

The fund in 2006 had excluded Freeport McMoRan Copper & Gold, and Rio's exclusion was mainly due to its partnership with Freeport in the Grasberg copper mine in Indonesia.
According to the government fund, 230,000 metric tons or more of trailings are discharged into a natural river system, and that discharge will grow as the mine expands.

There also is a high risk that acid rock drainage from the company's waste rock and tailings dumps will cause lasting ground and water contamination.
The mine is deemed to remain profitable until 2041, the fund noted. See external link to fund's report.

"There are no indications to the effect that the company's practices will be changed in future, or that measures will be taken to significantly reduce the damage to nature and the environment," the fund said.

Rio Tinto disputes the notion that it has a bad environmental record.

According to the fund, Rio Tinto replied that it "engages with Freeport and positively influences outcomes on a wide range of operational, community and environmental issues."

Rio Tinto said the tailings consist of ground natural rock and are not harmful to the environment. The fund maintained that even if the tailings contain high levels of ground rock, this does not mean that the discharge is harmless.

[Editor: gold mines use cyanide to extract gold from ore, and the mine tailings, or waste left over after extraction, are usually laced with cyanide. Additionally, cyanide stored in ponds may be accidentally discharged into lakes if the dams break, or the cyanide may leach into groundwater.]

The fund said there was destruction of most aquatic life in the waters and elevated levels of heavy metals in the sediment have been detected.

The fund has chosen not to invest or divest stakes in a variety of companies on ethics considerations, ranging from Wal-Mart Stores on human rights and labor allegations and GenCorp, United Technologies and Honeywell on their roles in nuclear weapons production.

Separately, two private-equity firms as well as Australian packaging firm Amcor ( and U.S. packager Bemis are vying for Rio Tinto's $5 billion packaging business, Reuters reported, citing sources familiar with the situation.

How the KGB (and friends) took over Russia's economy

CNN Money has an article about how Russia is effectively being run by a cabal of ex-KGB agents who long for Russia's former glory.

The Russian government has long violated property rights to place natural resource companies under state control. Property rights are fundamental to human well-being and to the smooth operation of a democracy. Government actors should not be able to expropriate property for personal or nationalist gain without due process.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Excedrin for racial tension headaches: Queen Latifah

Picked this up on Telling Secrets.

The American Way of Debt by the NY Times, plus some comments on a nonprofit business and debt

The Times has an interactive feature tracking the progress of debt in the US, as part of its 3 part series on the debt trap that many Americans now find themselves in.

I can't embed the flash presentation, so you will have to click through the link to see it. You'll be taken to the main page; click on the index, and select the American Way of Debt feature. That feature basically shows that the amount of debt held by American households has progressively risen since the 1950s, and really really took off in the 21st century.

In 1944, the average American saved $12,700 and had $7,500 in debt. In 1955, they saved $3,300 and had $21,000 in debt. Mortgages started to become more popular in the 60s. Things slowed down in the 70s, with a combination of high interest rates and inflation plus little economic growth.

In the 1980s, securitization of debt allowed lenders to package multiple mortgages. This allowed them lenders to make riskier loans, since one default wouldn't kill the whole package. Things really took off then, and in 2007, the average American household had $121,000 in debt and barely any savings. Then, things crashed.

I've had occasion to see some of these trends up close. I was an executive at a nonprofit housing cooperative. That title is in some ways less impressive than it sounds, since it's basically a local corporation in a university town; however, we do have over 500 members, and we are one of the largest coop housing systems in the nation.

The cooperative basically went with the times. We embraced the advent of debt to finance the purchases of new houses. More recently, we had been leveraging our existing home equity to take on new debt. This allowed us not to raise member charges drastically while still acquiring new houses.

If you click on the feature labeled Equity vs Debt, you'll note that the average American household now has more debt than home equity. That's very bad.

My cooperative is, fortunately, pretty far from that point. Although we got swept up to some extent in the debt frenzy, cooperatives also tend to be very left-leaning and mistrustful of corporations like banks. Debt hasn't been a huge part of our financing, although lately it's been increasing.

Not long ago, at a national conference of housing cooperatives, one of the leaders of the movement gave a presentation titled something like "Sitting on our Assets", where he basically said that we were doing a disservice to the cooperative movement by not leveraging ourselves to the hilt and using the money to buy new houses. The cooperative system he runs is indeed leveraged as far as the banks will let them. Ours is not, although we will have to increase our operating leverage to perform needed maintenance. We must price under regular landlords to attract members, and we can't afford to raise rents fast.

The Hebrews prohibited lending money at any interest. Debt can make it seem like you're getting free money, and if you use too much of that free money, you're trapped. This, presumably, is why the Bible enjoins us against usury. In fact, modern Muslims still follow this tenet. Now, I don't believe that debt per se is bad, but it is a bit like nuclear energy. It can be used for good, or it can destroy you.

America's profligate spending was in some ways financed by other nations - for example, many countries seeking a safe return and a stable currency bought US debt, and the amount of money flooding into US treasuries reduced borrowing costs for the government. If you think American household debt is frightening, the national debt is worse. As the Times feature shows, the use of debt is spreading to other countries. I would hope that they'll learn from what's happening to the US, but humans aren't all that good at learning. We tend to think that no, it can't possibly happen to me.

Either way, I think the cooperative movement in general does offer a strong counterpoint to the debt movement. As I posted earlier, American credit unions are weathering the credit crisis much better than banks. To recap, credit unions are member owned and non-profit. They don't have quite the same incentive to go gangbusters on the loans.

War splits Orthodox churches in Georgia and Russia

The Herald Tribune has a story about how the Orthodox Church in Georgia and Russia has been physically divided by the conflict. Leaders in both national churches have spoken out against the conflict and attempted to offer relief to affected civilians. They have expressed sorrow that Orthodox Christians are killing each other.

The Georgia conflict marks the first war between countries with majority Orthodox Christian populations since the Second Balkan War in 1913 pitted Serbia, Greece, Montenegro and Romania against Bulgaria in a prelude to World War I.

Priests and others close to the Orthodox churches, studying their role in post-Soviet society, have voiced anxiety that, while religion has recovered its stature, calls to prayer could not avert bloodshed between two peoples who share Orthodoxy, and centuries of deep cultural, political, economic and social ties.

"What these events show is the collapse of the myth of unity of Orthodox peoples and the collapse of the myth of the supreme peacemaking ability of Orthodox civilization," said Anatoly Krasikov, director of the Center for Religious and Social Studies of the Institute of Europe in Moscow.

"Of course it is not Orthodoxy that is to blame for this collapse, but concrete people, functionaries of the church administrative structures of Russian and Georgian Orthodoxy. They, for all practical purposes, remained aloof and did nothing to end a war that was unjust from all sides."

Russia has the world's largest Orthodox Christian population, with an estimated 75 percent of its over 140 million people identifying themselves as Orthodox (although only 10 percent are regular churchgoers), according to a poll last year by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center. The Moscow Patriarchate is vying with the smaller Patriarchate of Constantinople for predominance in the Orthodox world.

Georgia has fewer than five million people, but is one of the most ancient Christian countries in the world. Its church dates back to the fourth century, far outpacing the Russian church, which dates its founding to the Baptism of Rus in 988, when Prince Vladimir of Kiev brought Orthodoxy to the banks of the Dnieper River.

Russia annexed Georgia, which was seeking protection from Persia, in 1801, absorbed its church and abolished its Patriarchate, which was restored - in name, at least - only after the Bolsheviks came to power.

In Soviet times, Georgia became something of a refuge for persecuted Orthodox monks from Russia, said Nikolai Mitrokhin, a specialist on the Orthodox Church in the former Soviet Union. From Czarist times through the Soviet era, Georgian clergy trained in Russia and Kiev.

"For Georgia, Russia is this love-hate relationship," said Tamara Grdzelidze, an Oxford-trained theologian from Georgia who works at the World Council of Churches headquarters in Geneva and has edited an English-language history of the Orthodox Church of Georgia.

"Our patriarch was educated in Russia, and this is the best he knows and he respects it highly," she added. "This is a very complicated and long history of relationship between the churches. When Russia annexed Georgia in the beginning of the 19th century, it abolished the king, it abolished the patriarch in 1811, it persecuted the Georgian language at all levels, including the church."

The latest conflict has stirred those memories on both sides, rankling each.

Last week, Patriarch Ilia appealed to Medvedev and Putin to end the confrontation and not to recognize South Ossetia and Abkhazia. "This will give rise to separatism in your country, and in the future you will have many more problems than we have in Georgia today," he said, according to the Interfax news agency. "This is worth meditating upon."

There are deep historical and cultural factors in this conflict that predate Russia's resurgent nationalism. I do not pretend to understand them, but I urge readers to be aware.

Either way, it is a sorrowful thing when God's people, whatever creed they follow, kill one another. Pray for peace.

Fannie and Freddie placed in conservatorship by US government; history of government intervention in times of crisis

The New York Times reports on the bailout of Fannie and Freddie by US lawmakers. Some will be upset that these companies are getting bailed out with taxpayer money. However, they were government sponsored entities whose demise would cause a lot of disruption to the financial system, and that produced benefits for most Americans (as it turns out, they produced too much benefit). There are valid questions to ask about whether this is privatizing profits and socializing risk, and Americans should certainly shy away from that going forward. However, given the risk, this bailout is probably justifiable.

Despite decades of free-market rhetoric from Republican and Democratic lawmakers, Washington has a long history of providing financial help to the private sector when the economic or political risk of a corporate collapse appeared too high.

The effort to save Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is only the latest in a series of financial maneuvers by the government that stretch back to the rescue of the military contractor Lockheed Aircraft Corporation and the Penn Central Railroad under President Richard M. Nixon, the shoring up of Chrysler in the waning days of the Carter administration and the salvage of the savings and loan system in the late 1980s.

More recently, after airplanes were grounded because of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Congress approved $15 billion in subsidies and loan guarantees to the faltering airlines.

Now, with the federal government preparing to save Fannie and Freddie only six months after the Federal Reserve orchestrated the rescue of Bear Stearns, it appears that the mortgage crisis has forced the government to once again shove ideology aside and get into the bailout business.

“If anybody thought we had a pure free-market financial system, they should think again,” said Robert F. Bruner, dean of the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia.

The closest historical analogy to the Fannie-Freddie crisis is the rescue of the Farm Credit and savings and loan systems in the late 1980s, said Bert Ely, a banking consultant who has been a longtime critic of the mortgage finance companies.

The savings and loan bailout followed years of high interest rates and risky lending practices and ultimately cost taxpayers roughly $124 billion, with the banking industry kicking in another $30 billion, Mr. Ely said.

Even if the rescue of Fannie and Freddie ends up costing tens of billions of dollars, the savings and loan collapse is still likely to remain the costliest government bailout to date, said Lawrence J. White, a professor of economics at the Stern School of Business at New York University.

“The S.& L. debacle cost upwards of $100 billion, and the economy is more than twice the size today than it was in the late 1980s,” he said. “I don’t think this will turn out to be as serious as that, when over 2,000 banks and thrifts failed between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s.”

Most of those losses were caused by the shortfall between what the government paid depositors and what it received by selling the troubled real estate portfolios it acquired after taking over the failed thrifts.

In the Chrysler case, President Jimmy Carter and lawmakers in states with auto plants helped push through a package of $1.5 billion in loan guarantees for the troubled carmaker, while also demanding concessions from labor unions and lenders.

While Chrysler is remembered as a major bailout, Mr. White says it was minor compared with the savings and loan crisis or the current effort to shore up Fannie and Freddie.

In fact, the government did not have to give money directly to Chrysler, and it actually earned a profit on the deal because of stock warrants it received when the loan guarantees were provided. At the time, Chrysler had a work force of more than 100,000 people.

Still, Mr. Ely makes a distinction between the rescue of Fannie and Freddie and the thrifts versus the aid packages for Chrysler and other industrial companies. “They didn’t have a federal nexus,” he said. “They weren’t creatures of the federal government.”

This effort is also different from the others because of the potential fallout for the broader economy and especially the beleaguered housing sector if it does not succeed.

Unlike a particular auto company or even a major bank like Continental Illinois National Bank and Trust, which was bailed out in 1984, “we depend on Fannie and Freddie for funding almost half of our mortgage market,” said Thomas H. Stanton, an expert on the two companies who also teaches at Johns Hopkins University.

“The government,” he added, “has many less degrees of freedom in dealing with these companies than in the earlier bailouts.”