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Archive for September 2008

Iran-caused Hawkish Schizophrenia

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(Letter to the IHT)

Dear Editors

I am quite worried for the weeks to come.

A lame-duck US Presidency unable to convince Congress to pass its financial rescue package, and utterly unpopular around the country, may as well try to use an attack against Iran as a way to bolster its image, and to leave another lasting (and deadly) legacy. We could wake up one morning to hear very bad news indeed.

There is at this moment one question I would really like anti-Iranian hawks to answer.

The Iranian regime is building the Bomb because of perceived threats to its national security, That much will certainly be agreed by all: every country member of the “nuclear weapons club” has entered it because of security (and prestige) concerns.

Also, nuclear weapons are pretty much useless for an offensive strategy, as demonstrated by 63 years without a single atomic attack. Furthermore, even a single botched nuclear explosion, say, in Tel Aviv, would massively increase the risk for the regime, as most certainly followed by a massive atomic retaliation against Tehran.

And yet: commentator Gary Milhollin (“An arms race we’re sure to lose“, IHT, Sep 29) and reader James W. Litsey (“Stopping Iran“, Letters section, IHT, Sep 30) respectively recommend “a credible threat of international economic and diplomatic isolation” and making NATO “soon intervene by whatever means necessary“.

How on earth can they believe the above will make Iran change its mind? To the contrary: by piling up threats, Iran will surely be convinced to accelerate its nuclear program even further.

Shouldn’t we remove threats instead, and go back to old-fashioned diplomacy, thereby destroying the case for a nuclear Iran?

Didn’t that work with Lybia, and perhaps even with North Korea?

Written by omnologos

2008/Sep/30 at 12:41:04

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The Financial Sky Is Not Falling (Yet)

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A great post (in English) from mixed English/Italian blog noisefromAmerika with David K. Levine e Michele Boldrin explaining why it does not look like the world financial system is going to collapse tomorrow.

Unless the Bernanke&Paulson couple is not telling the whole truth…

That would also explain the otherwise absurd sight of politicians declaring an upcoming Armageddon with one hand, and squabbling for petty gains on the other.

As usual, the only thing to fear is fear itself (and a rushed-up solution). At this rate, the best thing that can happen is that nothing substantive is agreed until after the Presidential Elections. It’s only a month to go. If President Bush is really worried about it all, he can always impose a one-month bank-holiday period 😉

Most academic economists – the economists who do not work for companies likely to benefit from the bailout, nor for the President – are opposed to this plan […]

the total value of outstanding mortgages is $11 trillion […] while the value of insurance contracts written on them is about five times as large. Clearly, Mortgage Backed Securities (MBSs), CDOs and so on, were used as collateral for lots of additional borrowing […] That explains why, as the value of those houses is dropping the whole castle of cards threatens to crumble. […]

The problem in banking is the possibility of cascading failures, that the failure of bad banks may drag down the good banks […]

What is the solution? One is for the government to step in and buy securities, as proposed in the bailout plan before Congress.

[If those securities are not properly valued, the government] will only get securities worth less than that with the taxholder responsible for the difference. Notice that the ones who reap the rewards are the holders of bad securities […] In effect in order to keep the bad banks from driving out the good we rescue the bad banks.

There are many alternative schemes to the one proposed by Treasury:

  • Require banks to raise more capital. [In that case] the losses are borne by the good banks rather than the taxpayer
  • Forgive debt in exchange for equity. [It is well known that] debt forgiveness schemes have worked for resolving financial crises in the past.
  • Buy foreclosed houses for the value of the mortgage
  • Force an orderly winding down of the housing based derivative market […]

Yes: there can be cascading bank failures and that is a bad thing. But it does not happen instantly, not tomorrow, not next week, not next month […]

The bottom line, in the immediate future, is this. The Federal Reserve Bank and its sister agencies […] already have strong tools against a cascading failure of the banking system. […] We have not seen good banks fail, nor have we seen cascading failures. We have been given no reason to think anything of the sort is imminent. […]

To debunk the obvious: Washington Mutual failed Thursday night. Washington Mutual ATM cards continue to function as usual. […] The fact that banks are reluctant to lend to each other does not have much impact on their ability to make short term loans to customers. […]

If the Federal Reserve Bank and Treasury in fact have information that things are worse than Bernanke reported they should tell us what it is. Otherwise they should stand up and make it clear that doomsday is not around the corner.

Written by omnologos

2008/Sep/29 at 22:37:01

On Abortion, A Perfectly Reasonable Christian Stance

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Personally I find the following statements bordering on the obvious. For some reason, many people think otherwise, in one sense or another…and unbelievably, abortion is still somehow an issue in US politics.

From the Methodist Church’s “Abortion and Contraception” web page:

  • abortion is always an evil
  • there will be circumstances where the termination of pregnancy may be the lesser of evils

And in particular:

  • the mother should be told clearly of the alternatives to termination
  • abortion should be avoided if at all possible by offering care to single mothers during pregnancy, and the adoption of their children if, at full term, the mother cannot offer a home
  • the result of the coming together of human sperm and ovum is obviously human
  • the right of the embryo to full respect […] increases throughout a pregnancy
  • it would be strongly preferable that, through advances in medical science and social welfare, all abortions should become unnecessary
  • late abortions should be very rare exceptions
  • if abortion were made a criminal offence again, there would be increased risks of ill-health and death as a result of botched ‘back-street’ abortions
  • to refuse to countenance abortion in any circumstances is to condemn some women and their babies to gross suffering and a cruel death in the name of an absolutism which nature itself does not observe

Written by omnologos

2008/Sep/28 at 22:11:21

Antarctica, Beyond Any Imagination

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In this video (got it from the Bad Astronomy blog) a rather clear example of what “Condition 1” is in Antarctica.

It gives the idea of the awfulness of the place, more than the standard definition (“wind speed > 55knots, or visibility less than 30 yards, or wind-chill temperature of -100F”).

Apparently it is forbidden to go anywhere out, under “Condition 1”. It is even forbidden to go rescue anybody.

I guess the penguins just get on with it.

Written by omnologos

2008/Sep/27 at 21:04:33

Posted in Environment, Science

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Belarus, Just a Tad Less Hopeless

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Surprisingly upbeat news report on BBC Radio4 tonight about the upcoming elections in Belarus (Sunday 28 Sep).

President/Dictator Aleksander Lukashenko is still the dominating force but his Government is at least pretending to be more democratic than last time around. In all likelihood, these overtures will result in an organized opposition, leading to a new round of repression and/or the end of Lukashenko’s Dictatorship.

ps rumor has it that Belarus is just trying to woo the EU, in order to have a little more weight in its relationship with Russia…

Written by omnologos

2008/Sep/26 at 21:48:08

Posted in EU, Europe, Politics

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What Has President Nixon Ever Done To Us?

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James Grant is right in pointing out that one root of today’s financial troubles lies in the Nixon administration’s decision, on Aug. 15, 1971, “that the dollar would henceforth be convertible into nothing except small change” (“The buck stopped then“, IHT, Sep 25).

Really, there’s lots of disasters that can be directly linked to the fewer-than-usual days of Richard M. Nixon as President.

Abroad: the bombing of neutral Cambodia and Laos, resulting in 4 students dead at Kent State in Ohio, and the establishment of the genocidal Pol Pot regime; the threat to India with nuclear-powered USS Enterprise in 1971, resulting in India’s and subsequently Pakistan’s nuclear (bomb) programs; the approval of Pinochet’s bloody coup in Chile in 1973, with a dwindling support for US interests by Latin American governments ever since.

Domestically: the end of all human voyages beyond Earth orbit; the ballooning-up of the Federal Government with the establishment of a long list of Government Agencies; the abuse of Presidential powers with their following corrosion for more than a quarter of a century; the “culture wars” between Republicans and Democrats, all trying to despise each other most; Donald Rumsfeld; and of course the original declaration of the “war on drugs” that surely must have been the most inefficient endeavor ever taken by humanity.

Nixon’s Presidency started a little less than forty years ago. Its legacy, who knows when it will end?

Written by omnologos

2008/Sep/25 at 22:23:31

Thirty Thousand Attempts to Keep Turkey Out of the EU

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I was attracted at first to UCLA History Professor Perry Anderson’s contribution to the London Review of Books (LRB) in the 11 Sep 2008 issue (“After the Ottomans”, also titled “Kemalism”) by four peculiarities.

First of all the topic: the discussions about letting Turkey in the European Union are obviously helping define what the “European Union” actually is (or is not). The history of modern Turkey occupies an important spot in the debate, and Anderson’s article promised to deal with that in great detail.

In fact (and here lies the second oddity about “After the Ottomans”) it was a very long piece, running to a total of more than 14,000 words.

This is not a good or bad thing per se: but the vast majority of LRB articles are much, much shorter, little more than a couple of pages in print and less than 5,000 words (2,700 words for Rosemary Hill‘s “Making Do and Mending”, 25 Sep 2008; 4,700 words for Sheila Fitzpatrick’s “Like a Thunderbolt”, 11 Sep 2008) .

Longer pieces are not common; for example the 15,000 words for John Upton’s “In the Streets of Londonistan”, 22 Jan 2004). Actually, the fact that authors are given a restricted space to express their opinions, does set the LRB apart from, say, the New York Review of Books and The New Yorker.

Third, LRB articles usually sport very peculiar titles (check the examples above): Anderson’s was very uncharacteristically just a pure statement of fact.

Fourth, as it appeared obvious from the start, Anderson was not going to review any particular book: “After the Ottomans” was an essay in political history, with more than a whiff of polemics about everything Turkey.

Imagine then my surprise (or lack thereof) when the very next issue of the LRB hosted yet another Perry Anderson article on Turkey (“After Kemal”, 25 Sep 2008).

Once again the unimaginative title, the lack of any book to review (rather than simply quote and mostly, summarily dispose of), and the huge amount of paper devoted to it: 10 full pages, 16,000 words, of course mostly with very little of positive to say about Turkey.

So we got all of 30,000+ words on the single topic of post-Ottoman Turkish history: perhaps a record for the LRB, perhaps not. But it was all natural that I started wondering what was behind the LRB Editors’ choice to deluge their readers with enough words to fill up around 15 “standard” articles.

Now, I am not going to dwell into the “truth” of what Anderson has written about, from the end of the Ottoman Empire to today (it would be nice if a counter-article were to appear, perhaps on the LRB itself).

Who am I (who is anybody) to be able to reply to Anderson’s finely detailed history of Turkey, without risking getting buried by hundreds of pieces of information that only a lifelong study of a subject can provide?

And still: the two bits I dare considering myself rather familiar with, the conditions leading to the 1980 coup and the preparations and aftermath of the 1974 invasion of Cyprus, I do not remember them as clear-cut as described by Anderson, with the Turks invariably playing the “baddy” roles.

In truth, “After the Ottomans” and “After Kemal” do not read as works of scholarship as much as political-journalistic polemical essays, like a pamphlet of old, with an underlying “discourse” that keeps both articles together and absolutely consistent throughout. Oh, and all scholars that disagree with Anderson, each single one of them, have sold their souls to the Devil, I mean, the Ankara government.

In Anderson’s Turkish history everything is explained and neatly falls in place within the “narrative”. Even what shouldn’t follow that pattern (like the end of Menderes’ rule after being described as economically and politically strong) is classified as “part of a cycle” common to all centre-right Turkish governments: a cycle whose existence and reasons are however not truly explored.

Therein lies my biggest critique of Anderson’s double anti-Turkish whammy. Readers are being offered a partial and partisan representation of history, dressed up as the one and only truth, with no a single doubt expressed to it.

Turkey, they learn, is invariably on the wrong side of history (Turkish leftist politicians aside, apparently), behaving rather badly and with little in common to the rest of Europe, apart from a relentlessly-pursued (by Anderson) list of all that makes successive Kemalist and post-Kemalist governments in Ankara a sort of heirs to the Nazis.

That may be so: but why devote 30,000 words to it right now? Well, Anderson does actually provide an unwitting explanation to that: ironically, by making a very strong case for Turkish EU membership:

The conventional reasons for which it is pressed within the EU are legion: militarily, a bulwark against terrorism; economically, dynamic entrepreneurs and cheap labour; politically, a model for regional neighbours; diplomatically, a bridge between civilisations; ideologically, the coming of a true multiculturalism in Europe. In the past, what might have been set against these considerations would have been fears that such an elongation of the Union, into such remote terrain, must undermine its institutional cohesion, compromising any chance of federal deepening. But that horse has already bolted. To reject Turkish membership on such a basis would be shutting the door well after there was any point in it. The Union is becoming a vast free range for the factors of production, far from an agora of any collective will, and the addition of one more grazing ground, however large or still relatively untended, will not alter its nature.

In Turkey itself, as in Europe, the major forces working for its entry into the Union are the contemporary incarnations of the party of order: the bourse, the mosque, the barracks and the media. The consensus that stretches across businessmen and officers, preachers and politicians, lights of the press and of television, is not quite a unanimity. Here and there, surly voices of reaction can be heard. But the extent of concord is striking. What, if the term has any application, of the party of movement? It offers the one good reason, among so many crass or spurious ones, for welcoming Turkey into the Union. For the Turkish left, politically marginal but culturally central, the EU represents hope of some release from the twin cults and repressions of Kemal and the Koran; for the Turkish poor, of chances of employment and elements of welfare; for Kurds and Alevis, of some rights for minorities

Is it this then: with his essays, is Anderson trying to weigh in to keep Turkey out the EU unless certain conditions are met, exactly because there is an overwhelming list of reasons for Turkey to be accepted right now? It is telling that the listed “hopes” for the Turkish left, the Kurds, the Alevis form for Anderson some of the reasons for impeding Turkey’s “accession process”: thereby killing those very same “hopes”…

One last point: Anderson has been provided a pulpit by a major publication. Is the LRB in the business of torpedo-ing the chances for a European Turkey?

I do think the LRB Editors should come out honestly about it, explaining their own reasons for allocating a large amount of magazine real estate to…a pamphlet. A pamphlet unlike any other LRB article.

Written by omnologos

2008/Sep/24 at 12:24:10

Posted in EU, Europe, Politics

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