Friday, January 29, 2010

Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose

Ireland is the 5th most free economy in the world, and the freest outside the Asia-Pacific region.

So says the Heritage Foundation.

Apparently we're less free than last year due mainly to the budget deficit and the sorry state of the banking system. We're also free because of the low levels of corruption. In particular,

the police investigate allegations of corruption.

One wonders what all that Tribunal business is about then. But Heritage must know, right?

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The latest conservative cause: French banks

As Josh Marshall points out, Barack Obama clearly hit a conservative nerve with his claim in last night's State of the Union speech that as a result of a recent Supreme Court decision, foreign corporations can spend unlimited amounts on US candidate elections. A furious amount of spinning has taken place on The Corner today (Bradley Smith, Shannen Coffin), with apparent citing of chapter & verse (how many lawyers work at that place?) arguing that it's just not true.

But when you wade through the arguments and citations, the counterarguments turn out to rest on a fiction that a furrin corporation with a US subsidiary would never ever allow its furrin management to have political conversations with the US managers of its subsidiary and would never transfer money to the US subsidiary with the expressed purpose of it being a political donation. No doubt as we speak there are hundreds of envelopes stuffed full of euros and marked "bring on next US trip for November election" being discarded.

So let's be concrete and posit the following scenario. Suppose that Tim Geithner resigns as US Treasury Secretary and decides to run for Senator from New York in November. Suppose that French bank Société Générale, eternally grateful for the massive backdoor bailout via AIG that came from the New York Fed when Geithner headed it, decides to spend millions of dollars on getting Geithner elected. Note: SocGen has US subsidiaries so all the support will be easily originated from US corporations managed by US residents.

Would this be allowed in the wake of the Supreme Court decision?

Yes it would.

Bad ratings

One striking thing about US Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner's Congressional testimony yesterday on the Goldman Sachs AIG bailout is the role it assigns to credit ratings in driving the various bailout decisions e.g. --

Once a company refuses to meet its full obligations to a customer, other customers will quickly find other places to do business. If we had sought to force counterparties to accept less than they were legally entitled to, market participants would have lost confidence in AIG and the ratings agencies would have downgraded AIG again. This could have led to the company's collapse, threatened our efforts to rebuild confidence in the financial system, and meant a deeper recession, more financial turmoil, and a much higher cost for American taxpayers.

This suggests that another option for saving AIG was available -- to declare the link to credit ratings in any of its contracts null and void while otherwise committing to honouring its contracts in full. It was bizarre that the same agencies who rated any old shite AAA during the bubble still had such weight as the crash unfolded. And there's another issue. As the Wall Street Journal points out, it's a tad bizarre that the ratings agencies were downgrading AIG at this stage -- since AIG was already 80% owned by the US government as a result of the initial bailout. So why wasn't it rated like the US government i.e. AAA?

So it just doesn't add up. We're not yet at Dubai levels, where the government decides to tell one particular ratings agency to F*CK OFF. But in September 2008, it might not have been a bad idea.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Tabloid in "made-up story" shock

Statement from the Government of Dubai --

The Government of Dubai Media Office has denied a British newspaper's claim that Sheikh Mohammed had made an offer to the designer Victoria Beckham to help design a luxury hotel in Dubai.

The Office said the report carried by the 'The Daily Mirror' yesterday, claiming that Sheikh Mohammed personally wrote to ask Beckham on to the project was baseless.

The Managing Director of the media Office Ahmed Abdullah Al Sheikh, urged the media to validate and ensure accuracy of news before publishing and to avoid untrue and misleading stories in order not to face legal action.

Hope springs eternal.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Heathrow liquid bomb plot, again

Marc Thiessen, from his Waterboarding Works book --

In one of these reports, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed [KSM] describes in detail the revisions he made to his failed 1994–1995 plan known as the “Bojinka plot”— formulated with his nephew Ramzi Yousef—to blow up a dozen airplanes carrying some 4,000 passengers over the Pacific Ocean. Years later, an observant CIA officer notices that the activities of a cell being followed by British authorities appears to match KSM’s description of his plans for a Bojinka-style attack. He shares this information with British authorities. At first they are skeptical, but soon they acknowledge that this is in fact what the cell is planning. Intelligence from terrorists at Guantanamo Bay provides further insight into the cell’s plans for the use of liquid explosives.

In an operation that involves unprecedented intelligence cooperation between our countries, British officials proceed to unravel the plot. On the night of August 9, 2006—just over a month before the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks—they launch a series of raids in a northeast London suburb that lead to the arrest of two dozen al Qaeda terrorist suspects.

This is a very different chain of events from the conventional narrative for the plot, in which the suspect group was under surveillance for some time but the actual breakup of the plot occurred in a rush in August 2006, with multiple news accounts indicating that it was Dick Cheney's demand for an early arrest in Pakistan which was the precipitating factor, not the imminence of any plot. And two people are not mentioned in Thiessen's account -- Richard Reid, who was doing on-board bomb making in December 2001 and yet sailed past the Bush-era enemy combatant system, and Rashid Rauf, the supposed mastermind of the Heathrow plot who, to this day, has never been found.

Thiessen's book, Courting Disaster, is going to need intensive triangulation against other sources, because as of now its claim is essentially that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, post-waterboarding, can be linked to every plot. Except Richard Reid.

Previous Boston upsets on which history's verdict is different

Scott Brown -- the 2004 Manny Ramirez of our time?

For an intelligent take on how the Democrats are still living with the consequences of being too clever by half in 2004, Shannen Coffin has the goods. Here's the background.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Insert joke here

Emergency water distribution in Ireland.

Photo: Matt Kavanagh/Irish Times

Globalization at exp(x)

Gregg Easterbrook in his book Sonic Boom: Globalization at Mach Speed --

Even taking into account the post-2008 slowdown, worldwide economic production has risen at a pace that is difficult to believe. In the last thirty years, China's gross domestic product rose from around $500 billion to $2.7 trillion-that is to say, five times as much new economic production in the last thirty years as all forms of economic production just a generation ago. China is not some spectacular exception to a rule; rather, it is the leading indicator of an extraordinary economic surge across most, although of course not all, of the globe. Costa Rica, for example, increased its economic production from $8 billion in 1977 to $30 billion in 2008-more than three times as much new economic activity in the last three decades as total economic activity a generation ago.

Interesting fact:

GDP of Sweden, 1900 -- 2.245 billion Kroner
GDP of Sweden, 1930 -- 9.271 billion Kroner

In other words, by 1930, Swedish GDP had changed by more than 3 times as much as its initial level. Good times!

And note: we didn't pick Sweden because for being exceptional. It's a rich country today so of course it's exceptional. But it's had good data for a long time, which is what one needs to discuss any claim relying on the current period being exceptional for some new group of countries.

Source: Historical National Accounts of Sweden, series GDP by expenditure at purchasers prices

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

As things got messy

Alistair Campbell didn't concede a whole lot in his Iraq War Inquiry testimony today. But there were a few interesting points of historical perspective nonetheless. The committee members were taking him through the deteriorating conviction that WMDs would be found in Iraq and the related topic of UK-US tensions on how the Iraq war strategy should be communicated.

Campbell mentioned in particular a row behind the scenes at the Hillsborough (County Down) summit between George Bush and Tony Blair on April 7-8 2003 (in which Bertie Ahern was an occasional participant). Condi Rice, seen here with Jack Straw and (we think) James Hamilton, the 1st Governor of Northern Ireland: It became clear to the UK side that Condi was pushing an agenda of marginalizing the role of the UN in post-Saddam Iraq, whereas the UK side was keen for both legal and practical reasons that they should be involved. Campbell claimed that Blair intervened to get the UN role upgraded to "vital" but the assembled hacks smelled a rat and repeatedly pressed what exactly this meant --

PRESIDENT BUSH: Yes, I mean, when we say vital role for the United Nations, we mean vital role for the United Nations in all aspects of the issue -- whether it be humanitarian aid, or whether it be helping to stand up an interim authority. The Iraqi people will decide who's on the Iraqi -- the interim authority. The interim authority is a transition quasi-government until the real government shows up; until the conditions are right for the people to elect their own leadership. And the United Nations will have a vital role.

When we say vital role, that's precisely what we mean -- that they will be involved, along with the coalition, in helping to stand up an interim authority. But the Iraqi people are responsible for who's on that authority. And Tony can describe what's happening in Basra. He might describe some of the meetings that are taking place as leadership begins to emerge.

It is a -- it is a cynical world that says it's impossible for the Iraqis to run themselves. It is a cynical world which condemns Iraq to failure. We refuse to accept that. We believe that the Iraqi people are capable, talented, and will be successful in running their own government.

This of course set the stage for the disastrous decision-making that was soon to follow -- the failure to maintain law and order (a legal obligation of the occupying powers of which Blair was clearly aware), the disbandment of the Iraqi army, and the breezy assurances that the emerging Mehdi army would be easily seen off.

George also rallied the Irish peace process --

There is such hope here in Northern Ireland that the past can be broken. And the Prime Minister is right when he says that when the peace process is successful here, it will send a really important signal to other parts of the world. It will confirm the fact that people who have a vision for peace can see that vision become a reality.

Unfortunately, for all of this era's obsessions with "signals", recent events in Northern Ireland show how any signal is highly likely to be obscured by local noise. Hopefully no one abroad is looking to Ireland for good signals at the moment.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

King Billy wanted low taxes and less regulation

Reporting on events in Ulster (sic), from the New York Times --

But when Mr. Paisley resigned after a year at the age of 81 and handed his job to Mr. Robinson, the mood deteriorated, with Mr. Robinson increasingly beleaguered by right-wingers within the loyalist movement who see the power-sharing deal as a betrayal, and Mr. McGuinness under pressure from the rising threat of dissident republicans.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

One of these things is not like the other

Charles Krauthammer on Fox News, on U.S. intervention in Afghanistan --

It is not a place we want to go and invade. ... It is a wild place. ... It's never had a strong central government. It's got secessionist in the north, Tajiks in the west who are Iranians clients. It is so complicated it's almost incomprehensible.

All we can do is have our weaponry in place, like the Predators, gather intelligence, give intelligence, and work with the unreliable central government. It is not a place where you want to start a war.

But remember, the Saudis and Pakistanis are in that area and they are on our side. I would rather have the locals involved in the war than [have] the direct involvement of the United States.

We cheated. It's Krauthammer on US intervention in Yemen, arguing for a minimal approach. We've changed some of the location references but not the spirit of his argument.

But then the question is why does he not apply the same logic to Afghanistan. Of course this itself suggests a counterargument in that he is describing the 1980s-90s approach to Afghanistan -- get the Saudis and Pakistanis to manage the fighting and stay on the side watching.

That worked out real well.

So there is no easy solution to Yemen. But the above suggests that making policy pronouncements based on talking point descriptions of countries -- which is all he appears to have for Yemen -- is not very helpful, since the talking points will be too sparse to distinguish cases from each other.

UPDATE: More from Matthew Yglesias, although to be fair, his apparent prescription of leaving these trouble spots to their fate didn't work out so well in post-Soviet Afghanistan either.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

God (R-Heaven)

It used to be that the religious cudgels used against non-Republican Catholics in elected office in the USA were fairly clear. They had to be demonstrably against abortion and various types of contraception. But did you know that they have to be in favour of waterboarding? That's what former George Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen says --

It is also worth noting that a terrorist like KSM [Khalid Sheikh Mohammed] — who has killed thousands and has set in motion plans to kill thousands more — remains an unjust aggressor even while in custody. By withholding information about imminent attacks, he holds the power to kill. According to the Catholic Catechism, those in power have a moral obligation to render an unjust aggressor unable to cause harm.

It's really remarkable the number of universal principles that can be hitched to KSM's confession to 31 different plots. And there's no practical limiting logic. Conventional techniques could have gotten the suspect to admit to so many plots, but there could always be another one. Time to take it up a notch. And the Vatican says it's OK. Or at least someone who worked for George Bush says they do.

Incidentally, since the future KSM plots to which Thiessen refers must include the West Coast plot, he needs to explain why it was not a sin for the Bushies not to have waterboarded Richard Reid, who had apparent connections to this plot nearly 2 years before it was broken up.