Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The shoe bomber and the undies bomber

Josh Marshall has been working on the interesting contrast between the legal and political handling of Richard Reid and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (Marshall vs Thiessen). Both are being treated identically from a legal perspective (in regular criminal proceedings), but Republicans are now demanding enemy combatant status for the latter. Here's some more opinion of the Reid case when the Bushies were still in charge. First, then press secretary Ari Fleischer in February 2003 --

Q Ari, with the threat level now at orange, what does that mean for us ordinary citizens? How are we to be protected or how can we protect ourselves against chemical, biological attacks?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think Secretary Ridge addressed this in his remarks, and General Ashcroft did, as well. I provided you the information about what this means to the government, what the government would be doing. As you've heard, everybody in our society can play a role in being vigilant and that's what has been called for.

Now, I recognize that it can sometimes be a nebulous phrase, but nevertheless, everybody -- Richard Reid is the perfect example of where vigilance stopped an attack that could have been a devastating one.

And the job of the average citizen is to continue to be vigilant, while knowing that the agencies of the government that the taxpayers pay for, at the federal level, the state level and the local level, will be kicking it into higher gear to provide greater protections, based on the new warning.

If the hapless Janet Napolitano had just used the "vigilance" line inside of the infamous words about the system working, she'd be on more solid ground.

More substantively, here's Bush's counterterror czar and now omnipresent terror pundit Fran Townsend in February 2006 explaining the so-called Library Tower/"West Coast" plot --

Khalid Shaykh Muhammad was the individual who led this effort. He initiated the planning for the West Coast plot after September 11th, in October of 2001. KSM, working with Hambali in Asia, recruited the members of the cell. There was a total of four members of the cell. When they -- KSM, himself, trained the leader of the cell in late 2001 or early 2002 in the shoe bomb technique. You all will recall that there was the arrest of the shoe bomber, Richard Reid, in December of 2001, and he was instructing the cell leader on the use of the same technique.

After the cell -- the additional members of the cell, in addition to the leader, were recruited, they all went -- the cell leader and the three other operatives went to Afghanistan where they met with bin Laden and swore biat -- that is an oath of loyalty to him -- before returning to Asia, where they continued to work under Hambali.

The cell leader was arrested in February of 2002, and as we begin -- at that point, the other members of the cell believed that the West Coast plot has been canceled, was not going forward. You'll recall that KSM was then arrested in April of 2003 -- or was it March -- I'm sorry, March of 2003.

So Richard Reid, she says, used a shoe bomb technique that was developed by KSM in late 2001 (it's item 4 in his 31 admitted plots), was almost immediately in US custody, but KSM wasn't tracked down till 2003? What were they doing with Reid in the intervening period?

Townsend was asked about the Reid connection --

Q Is there any connection between Richard Reid and this plot, or did they get the idea from Richard Reid? What came first?

MS. TOWNSEND: It's not clear what came first. It was clearly the same technique that they were intending to use, the shoe bomb. More than that, we don't have the intelligence to tell us whether the cells -- that is, Richard Reid and this cell -- knew each other or had contact with one another. We just don't know that.

Yet earlier she had said that the shoe bomb technique came from KSM. She seems pretty relaxed about a huge potential lead via Reid to KSM having being let go cold. And the breaking up of the West Coast plot via enhanced interrogation techniques and not a Richard Reid connection is critical to Marc Thiessen's defence of the Bush administration, soon to be collected in his forthcoming book.

Was Reid ever asked anything?

It must be the cannon

Although some defenders of the securocrats are claiming that the case of the Detroit plane bomber indicates that the problem is too much information, we now know that in addition to the critical information that the US government had on Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and failed to piece together, there was one detail that should have clinched it --

As for off-campus activities, Mr. Rafiq said he liked to meet Mr. Abdulmutallab for Friday evening prayers at the Islamic Society’s campus prayer room, then walk to a nearby chicken-and-chips shop where they would eat and talk about their common enthusiasm for the Arsenal soccer club as well as Islamic Society business.

Who else was an Arsenal fan? Osama bin Laden. Case closed.

Arabia Felix

Frances Fragos Townsend appears frequently on CNN as a terrorism expert and has recently written in the Washington Post of the need for the US to issue an ultimatum to Yemen that sounded like very much like a threat of an invasion. Since the Detroit bomber trail leads to Yemen, the issue of how terrorism in Yemen got energized is going to be much discussed.

The fact that the backbone of al-Qaeda in Yemen comes from Guantanamo detainees released to Saudi Arabia under George Bush -- for whom she worked as counter-terrorism coordinator -- will certainly be relevant and is something that can be brought up when she is discussing terrorism and Yemen now.

But there's another issue. On 26 May 2009, she met with Saudi King Abdullah in Riyadh, as shown above. For a foreign private citizen to get a meeting with the King is not easy. One hopes that she is not pulling punches or tailoring messages so as not to interfere with any ongoing relationship with Saudi Arabia.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Terrorism's black swans

Matthew Yglesias thinks the problem revealed by the Detroit plane bomber is Too Much Information --

Out of the six billion people on the planet only a numerically insignificant fraction are actually dangerous terrorists. Even if you want to restrict your view to one billion Muslims, the math is the same. Consequently, tips, leads and the like are overwhelmingly going to be pointing to innocent people. You end up with a system that’s overwhelmed and paralyzed. If there were hundreds of thousands of al-Qaeda operatives trying to board planes every year, we’d catch lots of them. But we’re essentially looking for needles in haystacks.

OK, but of the 6 billion people on the planet, how many were 23 year old single men who paid for their ticket in cash, had no checked bags, had gotten a call to a US Embassy saying that they were bad news, had recently been denied a visa to the UK, and as a result of the Embassy tip, were already in one of the government's surveillance databases? And that's before we see all the recent passport stamps.

That's a pretty big needle in a pretty small haystack. The securocrats had the right amount of information. They didn't use it.

UPDATE: His visa for Yemen was apparently in the same passport as his US visa. Who looked at his passport when his journey to Detroit began?

FINAL UPDATE: The "too much information" talking point is buried -- by Barack Obama --

We've achieved much since 9/11 in terms of collecting information that relates to terrorists and potential terrorist attacks. But it's becoming clear that the system that has been in place for years now is not sufficiently up to date to take full advantage of the information we collect and the knowledge we have.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

The dots are global

Among the things highlighted by the Nigerian underpants bomber case is that the bits of information that could have been collated to construct a red flag were in different countries, and he complicated it further through his route to the USA. For example, the fact of his UK visa refusal apparently never entered into the calculation about whether he could get on a plane to Detroit. And we still don't know what Saudi Arabia and Yemen know about his recent travels or who else they told. But is the world ready for the sharing of such administrative information on a large scale? With the alternative being an increasingly absurd system on checks for all passengers which will quitely build support for profiling, it will have to be considered.

UPDATE: And we reinstate our campaign to apply the term securocrats to the people in charge who believe that we are just one more restriction on passenger behaviour away from complete airline security.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Thou rod of George's stem

It must be what passes for wit on the right on these days, but the headline on George Bush loyalist William McGurn's anti-healthcare op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, which is ostensibly about Barack Obama and the politics of it all, is "O Come O Come, Emanuel" -- and thus an Advent hymn aimed at Obama's Jewish chief of staff Rahm Emanuel. You go to war with the digs that you have, not the ones that you'd want, apparently.

Monday, December 21, 2009

They haven't forgotten their project

John Hannah, who ran Dick Cheney's national security operation --

With a very real prospect in the not-too-distant future of rivaling Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest oil producer, Iraq has the potential to one day emerge as the economic and military powerhouse of the Arab Middle East — and, if we play our cards right, a central pillar in America’s strategy to fight and win the long war against violent Islamist extremism. In short, this is a relationship very much worth investing in — even as America’s combat presence declines.

It sounds so simple. What could possibly go wrong? It's not like this is an ambitious venture like expanding healthcare access, after all.

Friday, December 18, 2009

An Army of Dawoods

Inevitably, the Wall Street Journal story about Iraqi insurgents intercepting the video feed from Predator drones has attracted much attention. One quibble. Many have followed the WSJ's line that it was done with "$26 off-the-shelf software" i.e. Skygrabber. It's not that simple. The Predator sends its feed to a satellite which then transmits it to a ground station. So you also need a dish, the satellite positioning, and frequency. It's a bit more complicated than just downloading Skygrabber and watching it all on TV.

But anyway, Max Boot of the Center for Foreign Relations blogs for Commentary about it --

This is part of a historical process that I analyzed in my book, War Made New: Technology, Warfare, and the Course of History, 1500 to Today:

"It is a truism that new technology, if it proves effective, tends to disseminate quickly…. The process of technological dissemination and nullification has speeded up since the rise in the mid-nineteenth century of such major arms manufacturers as Krupp, Winchester, and Armstrong, which were happy to sell to just about anyone…. Pervasive today are firms that sell dual-use devices such as computers, night-vision goggles, and GPS trackers which can have both military and civil applications. Thanks to their success, may of America’s key Information Age advantages are rapidly passing into the hands of friends and foes alike."

The U.S. has certainly sprinted to a lead in utilizing Information Age technology for military (as well as civil) purposes. But there is no room for complacency. Every new weapons system or surveillance platform we introduce only heightens our reliance on digital networks that are in turn very vulnerable to disruption. Wars of the future will have an important cyber aspect and it will be a major challenge for the Industrial Age bureaucracy known as the Department of Defense to adjust. The latest news about the hacking of the Predator feeds shows just how urgent is our need to stay ahead of our foes on these virtual battlefields.

Is that what his book actually said? His own description of it 3 years ago is a tad different --

Because creativity is so unpredictable, no country can count on making all, or even most, major scientific and technological breakthroughs.

Moreover, few if any technologies, much less scientific concepts, will remain the property of one country for long. France matched the Prussian needle gun less than four years after the 1866 Battle of Königgrätz; Germany matched the British Dreadnought three years after its unveiling in 1906; the USSR matched the U.S. atomic bomb four years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is a truism that new technology, if it proves effective, tends to disseminate quickly. Today, key American inventions such as computers, night-vision goggles, and GPS trackers are rapidly passing into the hands of friends and foes alike.

The way to gain a military advantage, therefore, is not necessarily to be the first to produce a new tool or weapon. It is to figure out better than anyone else how to utilize a widely available tool or weapon.

That's much more about the futility of believing that there's some way of "staying ahead" of the bad guys -- a recipe for huge defence spending -- and concentrating on getting the basics of existing systems right. Incidentally, Boot doesn't intend it this way, but his description of the decentralized and unpredictable nature of the innovative process and how governments aren't good at it is an oblique tribute to these insurgents. What they did was a tad clever. Which raises the more general point that just as the world's slickest technology might have its limitations against them, so might the world's most brilliant Powerpoint war strategy.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

"I've seen worse in Belfast on a Friday night"

Truly classic live TV news as Phelim McAleer (husband of Ann McElhinney) in a polar bear suit in Copenhagen is interviewed by Fox News Neil Cavuto and the hecklers get more hostile.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The talking point bust

It's the claim that keeps popping up in English newspapers and keeps being recycled by US conservatives. Here's the Telegraph's Con Coughlin in today's Wall Street Journal --

Soon after his [Obama's] inauguration, he sent back to the U.K. a bust of Sir Winston Churchill that had been loaned to President George W. Bush after the 9/11 attacks. The sculpture had enjoyed pride of place in the Oval Office.

Above, George W. Bush accepting the bust on July 16, 2001. Perhaps the spirit of Winston was trying to warn about an imminent attack but was being ignored.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars

One of the mysteries with these politicians-on-the-front visits, as with Gordon Brown in Afghanistan, is why they insist on wearing the armour with a suit.

But the Little Heathrow thing is funny. One assumes that by virtue of having fewer terminals, the transfers are easier than at its namesake.

AP Photo/Matt Cardy, Pool

Friday, December 11, 2009

Pigs Fly

In which we agree completely with a Wall St Journal editorial, the topic being Alistair Darling's bankster bonus tax --

If our politicians are concerned about windfall profits at banks, they'd do better to re-examine the ways in which their own bailouts and calls for re-regulation are cartelizing the banking industry and insulating the biggest banks from competition.

And as in previous instances, Paul Krugman's uncritical endorsement of any financial sector policy coming out of London looks a tad strange.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Another generation's high stakes

This is the opening film from the UN Climate Change conference in Copenhagen.

It's effective. But is it just a slicker version of the Lyndon Johnson 1964 Daisy Commercial?

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

We have our own den of thieves

Writing at National Review's The Corner, David Yerushalmi of the Center for Security Policy outlines the thesis that Sharia-compliant finance is a Trojan horse used by Islamic radicals to institutionalize Islamism in the west --

What makes this institutionalization a bit tricky is that the financial jihadists must convince the Western financiers and their governmental counterparts that Shariah-inspired finance is somehow distinct from Shariah-inspired global jihad against the infidel West. In other words, how do you export a financial model among infidels when that model is built upon a doctrine that manifestly calls for the death and destruction of the infidels and their political and social systems? The answer to this quandary is found in the second group of SCF advocates: the Western facilitators.

The financial jihadists built their strategy upon both sovereign wealth and the cravenness and fecklessness of the Western facilitators who would sell their own well-being and physical security for a place among the Fortune 500. Led by the Saudis but also joined by the other oil-soaked Persian Gulf regimes, the Shariah-inspired jihadists learned quickly that Western financial institutions and their professional lackeys in the legal and accounting fields would do anything for that next billion-dollar transaction.

Greed, self-indulgence, and even treason are of course not new to the international banking and multinational corporate worlds. But what the Shariah advocates have found even more to their liking is the fact that the Western technocrats and government policymakers have been more than willing to ignore Shariah’s call for global jihad and its resonance as the common doctrine articulated by jihadists around the globe.

There are a few practical problems with this thesis, as the factual evidence surrounding it signals. From the minor errors elsewhere in the post ("the Carter-era oil embargo" -- it was Nixon) to more on-point mistakes --

Dubai World, a company wholly owned by the Dubai sovereign, has funded itself through debt to the tune of $60 billion in the form of Shariah-compliant bonds (or “sukuk”).

Much of Dubai World's funding is boring old conventional syndicated loans or bonds. And the real Islamic scholars aren't sure if its sukuk was actually Sharia-compliant.

But most of all there is the absence of any demonstrable objective or outcome of all this Islamo-infiltration of western finance. As the global financial crisis shows, Wall Street and London did a fine job pulling down the roof all on their own, and likewise this massive Persian Gulf conspiracy to popularize Islamist finance helped pull down the roof in, er, the Persian Gulf.

The bottom line: trying to look at financial crisis through the War on Terror lens is just not very helpful. Sometimes a sukuk is just a sukuk.

New Dubai

Headline -- Qatar to Build World's Largest Chandelier

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Yemeni rebels have Saudi POWs

As if it was news-dumped on Thanksgiving/Eid -- official statement from Saudi Ministry of Defence:

An official source at the Ministry of Defense and Aviation and General Inspection said that some media carried through their sources with the infiltrators attacking our country"s southern borders with Yemen pictures of persons who were said to be Saudi prisoners of war as a result of the military operations currently underway. For clarification, we would like to state that there are 9 missing of our people. We were not informed of their martyrdom or otherwise. They are:

1- Lieutenant colonel Saeed bin Mohammad bin Ma"atooq Ala"amri
2- Corporal A"aedh bin Ali bin Saeed Alshihri
3- Under sergeant Ahmad bin Ali bin Ali Madadi
4- Sergeant Mohammad bin Mohsin bin Sultan Ala"mri
5- Under sergeant Ahmad bin Abdullah bin Mohammad Ala"mri
6- Sergeant Miflih bin Jama"an bin Miflih Alshahrani
7- Corporal Ali bin Salman bin Ali Alhiqwi
8- Under sergeant Khalid bin Salih bin Omar Alo"oodah
9- Private first Yahya bin Abdullah bin A"amir Alkhzae"i

Their families are aware of their status and we are in contact with their families constantly.

The source said, "As we announce this, we hold all forces dealing with them fully responsible for protecting their lives. We also remind them of the Islamic Sharia (Law)-ordained rights and duties toward this category of fighters.

This is going to make for an interesting case study in what exactly Sharia law says about combatant prisoners.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

He thinks he's the head of state

National Review's Kevin Williamson

President Obama welcomed Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to the White House with words that have inspired snickers in New Delhi:

"Yours is the first official state visit of my presidency, its fitting that you and India be so recognised," 48-year-old Obama told the 77-year-old Indian leader.

The general reaction in India has been: Who the heck does this guy think he is?

Note first that this "general reaction in India" doesn't extend to providing a link. Given the lack of evidence, we might as well assume that the source is the same Hindu chauvinist/neocon alliance that has been busy briefing against other aspects of the post-Bush India-USA relationship. But note finally PM Singh's remarks at the state dinner last night --

PRIME MINISTER SINGH: Mr. President; the First Lady, Mrs. Michelle Obama; distinguished guests. I feel privileged to be invited to this first state banquet, Mr. President, under your distinguished presidency. You do us and the people of India great honor by this wonderful gesture on your part. We are overwhelmed by the warmth of your hospitality, the courtesy you have extended to us personally, and the grace and charm of the First Lady. (Applause.)

Mr. President, your journey to the White House has captured the imagination of millions and millions of people in India. You are an inspiration to all those who cherish the values of democracy, diversity, and equal opportunity. (Applause.)

Mr. President, I can do no better than to describe your achievements in the words of Abraham Lincoln who said -- and I quote -- "In the end, it's not the years in your life that count. It is the life in your years." (Applause.)

Mr. President, we warmly applaud the recognition by the Nobel Committee of the healing touch you have provided and the power of your idealism and your vision. (Applause.)

The general reaction of this blog is: who does this guy think he is?

The more dioxide the better

Powerline's "Hindrocket" is wading through the Univ of East Anglia Climate Research Unit file dump. He highlights an interesting sequence where various scientists are informally discussing why the predicted increase in global temperatures has not been observed in recent years. One discussant raises the possibility that it's because China and India are producing so much sulphur dioxide from their industries that the resulting cooling effect of all that stuff in the atmosphere is offsetting the warming from carbon dioxide. He goes on to propose, seemingly sarcastically, that we should be encouraging pumping of even more of the stuff into the atmosphere for precisely this reason. Of course to Hindrocket, this is merely a glorious free lunch: by letting China and India pollute all they want, we wouldn't need to anything about global warming.

A couple of points. First, the e-mails complain that there's no data on China and India sulphur dioxide emissions that would help verify the cooling hypothesis. Scientists like having data before making radical proposals. Second, there's the link to the Superfreakonomics idea that caused so much controversy -- the geo-engineering plan hyped in the book to directly pump SO2 into atmosphere and achieve global cooling by design. Although the advantage of their plan was cheapness, it appears they missed the freest lunch of all -- the status quo! It's amazing that the Earth seems to feature of a form of "intelligent design" if you will, allowing us to scale up all our forms of pollution in proportion and carry on as before.

Except for the acid rain, diminishing sunlight, polluted oceans, and increasingly dioxified air. Though it would probably set the stage for a resurgence of Impressionist art.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The history of 2008 is still being written

One of the strange things about the global economic crisis is that prescriptions for how to end it (or claims about what ended it) are flowing freely despite a lack of understanding of what was going on during the crisis.

Consider today's news dump from the Bank of England that this time last year, it was running a secret lending program to RBS and HBOS --

Use of the facilities peaked at £36.6bn for RBS (on 17 October) and at £25.4bn for HBOS (on 13 November). Total use of ELA [emergency liquidity assistance] across both banks peaked at £61.6bn on 17 October. At this point the two banks provided the Bank with collateral (residential mortgages, personal and commercial loans and UK government issued debt) with a total value in excess of £100bn. The banks were charged fees for the use of the facilities.

Although the fact that RBS and HBOS were on the brink was generally known, the scale of the assistance was not. Essentially there was a 2 month period where their only willing lender was the government -- and the Bank of England got a guarantee from the Treasury to cover potential losses.

What this means is that conclusions about the effectiveness of policies that are drawn from only publicly disclosed policies now have to be revised. Yes Gordon Brown convinced himself -- and others -- that he had saved the world through the equity injections to the banks. Now there's the little matter of how he was also lending them $100 billion and not telling anybody about it.

Incidentally, the B of E's phrasing in explaining why it kept the program secret is a Sir Humphrey classic --

In most cases, confidence can best be sustained if the Bank’s support is disclosed only when the conditions that gave rise to potentially systemic disturbance have improved to a point where the disclosure itself should not be a cause of such disturbance

In other words, we only tell you when telling you wouldn't have any impact. Trebles all round!

India has its interests

Recent news articles leave one with the impression that people are trying to use India as a stick with which to beat the Obama administration. Yet consider this remark from Indian PM Manmohan Singh last night at the Council on Foreign Relations --

The social agenda has come to dominate the domestic political discourse, both in India and the United States. This was the verdict of our general election held in May 2009, and I believe it was also of yours.

The time is therefore opportune for us to substantially enhance our cooperation in critical areas of education, health, energy, science and technology and agriculture. Collaboration between our software industries has powered the global knowledge economy. We can build and we must on this experience and look at new frontiers of cooperation.

So although the geopolitical angle to US-India discussions is inevitable, the PM apparently believes that one ignores domestic social concerns at one's electoral peril. Sometimes, wars have to wait.

A 15 year cycle

Paul Krugman, building on his NYT column --

So does 1994 carry lessons for today? Well, I guess everything does. But the differences were large — and 1994 does not offer an example of bond vigilantes derailing a recovery: despite the vigilante attack, growth just kept on rolling.

The specifics of what happened --

Then as now there was a large “carry trade” motivated by the spread between long rates and short rates; when the long rate started to rise, there was a balance sheet squeeze that caused a stunning, albeit short-lived spike:

The context for Krugman's account is worth filling out because it has a strong implication for the relevance of the 1994 comparison -- the Fed was tightening like crazy in 1994 in reaction to the bond market. Here's the Fed's tabulation of the policy interest rate changes in 1994-95:

Increase Decrease Level
December 19: ... 25 5.50
July 6: ... 25 5.75
February 1: 50 ... 6.00

November 15: 75 ... 5.50
August 16: 50 ... 4.75
May 17: 50 ... 4.25
April 18: 25 ... 3.75
March 22: 25 ... 3.50
February 4: 25 ... 3.25

That's a 275 basis point increase in rates before they eased off. In other words, those bond market vigilantes got what they wanted. So if there's a 1994 message for today, it's that when the central bank responds to the vigilantes, interest rates come back down. But that's not that message that we want for 2009, right?

The bigger picture is that 1994 was arguably the beginning of the mess the world is in today. It confirmed Alan Greenspan's credentials as the man who would do what the bond market said, and so promoted the idea that Wall Street risk had declined for good. Because of the vigilante attack, growth just kept on rolling. Hence the piling into ever riskier stuff on the assumption that the macroeconomic risk was gone.

And here we are.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Opium of the people

Very interesting account of how the Egyptian media engaged in deliberate stoking of tensions with Algeria before and after last week's World Cup qualifier in Khartoum. Which serves as an illustration of the way that "rage" in the Arab media can be turned on and off, with Israel as the usual subject. Predictably, the soccer rantings included a claim that the Algerians were fronting for the Israelis.

The Ireland-France tensions over Le Main de Thierry are not quite as heated of course, but the question is going to be whether the minds of ministers were busy with foreign quarrels as the flood waters rose in Cork and Galway.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Le mot juste

In the light of the Thierry Henry row, consider that the French word for disappointment is --



One French person defends Thierry Henry

It's the Secretary of State for Sport, Rama Yade, who has been on a downward trajectory in Sarko's government since being elevated into a high profile Minister of State for Human Rights position at the start of his administration. So anyway --

la secrétaire d'Etat aux Sports Rama Yade a estimé qu'elle ne pensait pas "que l'on puisse parler de triche" : "Vous ne pouvez pas savoir exactement d'où vient le ballon et où il part. D'ailleurs l'arbitre n'a rien vu", a déclaré Mme Yade. "Thierry Henry lui-même a reconnu avoir touché le ballon. Il n'y a que lui qui sait si c'était volontaire", a-t-elle estimé, ajoutant : "Je ne crois pas qu'un joueur de son envergure, avec son expérience, avec son palmarès, le nombre de sélections qu'il a eues en équipe de France, avec l'amour qu'il a du jeu, qu'il soit un homme à faire de la pratique anti-sportive".

Loose translation: One shouldn't speak of trickery. We can't know exactly where the ball went. The officials saw nothing. Thierry Henry himself acknowledges having touched the ball. Only he can say if it was intentional. I don't think that a player of his stature, with his experience, with his honours, his number of caps, with his love for the game, that he's a man who would engage in unsporting conduct.

Looser translation: Screw this fairness business. I'm going to South Africa.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Perfidious Gaul

Irish soccer fans should note that there is a template for responding to perceived outrages inflicted by the French. Replace Jacques Delors' picture with that of Thierry Henry and we're getting somewhere.

Another Iron Curtain

Weird World Cup 2010 Fact: The only two eastern European countries in the tournament will be two countries that did not exist as sovereign countries when Communism fell: Slovakia and Slovenia*. And neither host country for the Euro 2012 championship (Poland and Ukraine) will be there. It's a funny old game.

*It depends on whether you consider Serbia as the successor to Yugoslavia and indeed whether Yugoslavia was an Iron Curtain country. The point is that for all the talk about an eastward shift in soccer (which was used to rationalize the location of Euro 2012), there's no sign of it in the qualifying.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Not in the mood

One of the heckles at Yusuf Islam (Cat Stevens) at his Dublin concert on Sunday night --

play Peace Train, you f***ing b******

Friday, November 13, 2009

The ghosts of November

Jonah Goldberg --

Whatever his faults, President Bush got to say one thing that the American people always appreciated: After 9/11, he kept us safe from a terrorist attack on the homeland. If Hasan acted as a jihadist terrorist and not a disgruntled psychiatrist, Obama can’t even make the same claim about his first year in office.

Two things to note. First, a perfect example of the desire of conservatives to write 9/11 out of Bush's record. Ignoring the huge disaster 8 months into his term, he did a great job. Which means incidentally that, as written, Goldberg's swipe at Obama is just wrong. Bush can't make the claim that he says Obama can't make.

But anyway, did Bush get through the rest of term without any more Islamist-inspired attacks? The Jonah Goldberg of 2002 didn't think so -- because he thought that the Washington DC-area sniper attacks were Islamist terrorism. Before the culprits were found, there was the speculation --

The D.C. sniper is demonstrating many of the skills and techniques taught at al-Qaida's terrorist training camps, including hit-and-run attacks and facility with military weapons. Also, eyewitnesses say the sniper is an "olive-skinned man" -not that anyone wants to racially profile. Also, there's the fact that the sniper attacks are in and around Washington, D.C., the nation's capital. The coincidence that this is happening at the seat of the U.S. government is relevant.

And after they were caught? --

We know the Sniper is a Nation of Islam Muslim (which is to say he belongs to a cult that uses Islamic jargon). We know he's black. But I've got this nagging feeling we might find out that he also practices an alternative lifestyle -- I mean besides from all of the murdering. There's just something about this Batman and Robin act -- Malvo is his "ward"? --- that strikes me as odd, in a specific way. Call it a hunch. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Could Mr Hasan be the new threefer?

Those were the days

Wall Street Journal article on the fallout from the demise of the Dynamic Decisions Growth Premium Master Fund Ltd. --

Grant Thornton has said the fund had about $550 million in unaudited assets on Dec. 31. The Dynamic Decisions Growth Premium Master Fund delisted its shares from the Irish Stock Exchange a year ago.

There was a birds of a feather quality to the Irish boom. A property sector gone wild at home and a financial sector looking all sophisticated by being part of a hedge fund administrative archipelago. Good times.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Alternative history

Watching the 20th anniversary of the end of the Berlin Wall led to an interesting television moment. The French channels covering the event live were stuck with the German audio feed during the Sarkozy speech, meaning that viewers could only hear the German words as their president spoke. For one moment maybe, a reminder of the jitters that accompanied Mauerfall in real time.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Truth in advertising

RTE headline --

Cannabis seized in Hempstown

You can't eat gold

Indian Minister of Finance --

“We have money to buy gold. We have enough foreign exchange reserves.” He contrasted India’s strength with weakness elsewhere: “Europe collapsed and North America collapsed.”

So India celebrates its strength by paying $6.7 billion for an asset that doesn't pay interest and doesn't serve any physical function. It does make for a highly speculative financial play. Apparently that's the new business of central banks.

Monday, November 02, 2009

You can't get there from here

The Arab League has found the single cause of the Israel-Palestine problem --

The Arab League's Palestine and Arab occupied territories division in a statement on the memory of the declaration formed nearly a century ago, said that "the Palestinian people live under difficult conditions and suffer under violations of their most simple of rights as a result of Israeli occupation.
"This requires our joint efforts with Britain and the international community to enable these people to regain their national legitimate rights." The statement furthermore stressed that the Balfour Declaration was the major reason behind the human catastrophe that has become of the Palestinian people and still continues to this day.

If that's the diagnosis, good luck with the cure. But keep your day jobs.

Even the Victorians understood the need for public health

There's a new anti-healthcare reform talking point stalking the USA. That the swine flu vaccine experience proves that a government run healthcare system can't work. This meme was working around the blogosphere in the last couple of weeks and hits the big time today -- Bill Kristol:

After all, we're seeing a big government health care program in operation right now--the Obama administration's effort to deal with the swine flu problem. No, come to think of it, it's now the swine flu emergency. Last week, President Obama so legally designated it. How's that test case in government-run emergency care going?

Turn on your local news to find out. You'll see false reassurances, broken promises, rationing which doesn't provide the promised rations, queues lengthening while supplies run out, and lots of bureaucrats explaining just why things aren't working quite as their centrally planned plans had planned.

At the all-Obama-hating-all-the-time blog of Commentary magazine, Jennifer Rubin identifies "swine flu Moms" as the successor to soccer moms who likewise will rebel against the Obama plan on the basis of their swine flu vaccination experiences.

Which may be the most abysmal talking point yet. Consider the alternatives to a public vaccination program. The government could just get completely out of the business of procuring vaccines and let the invisible hand decide how much vaccine is produced and who gets access to it. Which raises problems so obvious it's amazing to have to spell them out. Contagious disease vaccination campaigns only work when lots of people get the vaccine -- especially for a quickly mutating virus like flu. And "lots of people" includes people with not much money, or no doctor, or with lack of time to go a doctor's office -- but who still breathe the same air as Bill Kristol and Jennifer Rubin. A long time ago, governments of very different political stripes decided that there was a basis for them being involved in public health programs. Apparently the deal is off.

And if you don't like the trip through successively smaller waiting rooms that is a visit to the doctor's office now (Seinfeld joke) just imagine what it would be like with a mob there convinced that they're the ones who need the vaccine more than anybody else.

Another perspective: the US swine flu vaccinations are being run by state and local governments, who vary in their access to the vaccine, their capacity to deliver it, their criteria for deciding who gets it, and their procedures for enforcing those criteria. We could simplify by putting the federal government in charge of the whole thing and then it would be uniform procedures throughout the country. But then the accusation would be that Obama is "federalizing" healthcare -- and that's before the crazies would get working on the idea of the federal government giving everyone injections. Especially if the government decided to manufacture the vaccine itself -- given the production problems that have arisen with letting private firms do it.

So anyway, the point is that if you don't like the current approach to swine flu vaccination, the alternative is more free market provision of it, or more government provision of it. Which do Kristol and Rubin prefer?

Sunday, November 01, 2009

The proliferator in chief

Mark Steyn thinks there's some kind of message in the fact that George W. Bush was well received in India on a weekend visit having let India legitimise its nuclear weapons while Hillary Clinton had a tough time in Pakistan since she avoided the happy talk that usually accompanies such visits. It would be worth asking the Indian government whether they thought Hillary was asking the right questions.

But anyway, George Bush is apparerently proud of his Indian nuclear deal. His secret service people have other worries --

Confirming the incident, S G Amin, Assistant Deputy Fire Officer (ADFO), Fort area, reveals to Sunday MiD DAY, "They (Bush security officials) were keen to know whether the MFB [Mumbai Fire Brigade] is capable of handling situations arising out of chemical or atomic attack. Our reply was a blatant no as we are not trained to handle such emergencies."

Leave aside the Bush team's focus on a WMD attack in a city whose most recent terrorist atrocity was a plain old guns and bombs affair. Under this great nuclear deal, India gets access to even more nuclear technology without any more capacity of first responders to deal with the situation where something goes wrong. Another Bush cost that got dumped into the future.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Greece and Afghanistan

It's worth keeping track of what the neocons are saying about Afghanistan. They think that they have Barack Obama on the back foot on this one, with Iraq "proving" that a troop increase can have powerful effects in taming an insurgency and with the US (thanks to 7 years of neglect) facing some very awkward choices when ideally the choices would be either scale up massively or just go home. But anyway, one critical issue in both Afghanistan and Iraq is whether the USA (or similar power) can ever really "win" a war fought via a domestic proxy. Here's Max Boot --

The worst thing the Obama administration could do is throw up its hands in despair and claim we can’t win in Afghanistan because of [Hamid] Karzai’s problems. In fact, every counterinsurgency effort in history has faced a problem of governmental legitimacy; if the government were generally accepted as legitimate and efficient, there would be no insurgency to begin with. Enhancing governmental credibility is a tough task but by no means a mission impossible — we’ve helped achieve that outcome in countries as varied as Greece, the Philippines, and El Salvador.

So let's take Greece which is perhaps the least well-known example in the US. The Wikipedia article on the period on question is excellent. There are a few things to note.

First, this was a civil war in which the US picked a side. The Cold War made things relatively simple since they could mapped into 2 sides: Communist and not-Communist. Do Iraq and Afghanistan have 2-sided civil wars?

Second, what eventually did in the Greek Communists? A falling out between Tito and Stalin. They needed Tito for the logistical support but Stalin for the ideology, and when there was a row, most of the leadership chose the latter. Which was a huge mistake. Yugoslavia was a lot closer.

Third, Greece does resemble Afghanistan in one important respect. The locals had seen off a hated foreign occupier (Nazi Germany and the USSR respectively) pretty much on their own. Having someone else waltz in at the end to declare themselves in charge didn't go down very well with the people who had stuck it out at home. Hence the legitimacy problems to which Boot obliquely refers.

And finally, if we are looking at outcomes following US interventions to boost a local client, Greece is close to the best case scenario. It's now a rich country in the European Union and NATO, with a significant foot in eastern Mediterranean/Adriatic politics and good (if complex) relations with most of its southeastern European neighbours. But that's 50 years after its civil war ended. In between there's been military coups, dictatorships, the partition of Cyprus, a terrorism problem that never really went away, mass emigration, street riots, and poisonous domestic politics.

If the American people are to be told the truth about what a prolonged Afghan adventure would involve, shouldn't this decades-long scenario be part of the sales pitch?

Friday, October 30, 2009

Is there anything they can't do?

Wall Street Journal -- One of Russia's most powerful tycoons -- barred entry to the U.S. for years due to U.S. government concerns about possible ties to organized crime -- visited the country twice this year under secret arrangements made by the Federal Bureau of Investigation ...

A State Department official said Mr. [Oleg] Deripaska doesn't hold a valid U.S. visa.

FBI investigators, as well as authorities in Britain and Spain, have probed Mr. Deripaska's business interests in the past amid allegations of money-laundering from investigators and prosecutors. He has never been charged with a crime in those probes. Mr. Deripaska has met with FBI investigators before. It isn't known what was discussed ...

During the early October trip he met top investment-banking executives including Goldman Sachs Chief Executive Lloyd Blankfein, according to people familiar with the meetings.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

That's the good news

Max Boot, reporting in the Weekly Standard on the Afghan part of his Afghan-Iraq trip --

It may seem like we've been at war in Afghanistan for eight years, but given the lack of resources for most of that time, the war effort is really less than six months old in critical parts of the country. "We are essentially where we were in Iraq in 2004," one American colonel told me. "We're just getting started."

Matthew Yglesias was recently discussing a similar point. Since it took George Bush 3 full years from the start of 2004 to find a workable Iraq policy, let's not overemphasize the "rush" on Obama's Afghan decision.

UPDATE: Fascinating opinion piece by Afghan war veterans David Adams and Ann Marlowe in the Wall Street Journal. Bottom line: the question of more or less troops is irrelevant. It's the strategy for working with the tribes that matters. Which could also be taken as the lesson of the Surge in Iraq.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Carry on up the Tigris

Max Boot, whose solution to every foreign policy problem is more troops --

I happened to be few miles away from the terrible bomb blasts that went off in central Baghdad on Sunday, but I first became aware of them when word spread around the conference room in the U.S. embassy, where I was being briefed.

This reminds me of what I learned long ago in Iraq: acts of violence that occur a few blocks away might as well be a world away. Once again, I learned the details from CNN, just as observers back in the U.S. did. I did not feel the roar of the explosion, nor see the smoke.

He seems blind to the irony of being "in Iraq" but learning Iraqi news from CNN. Inside the fortress that is the US Embassy.

Then there's the rest of his itinerary, for which one assumes the US taxpayer is being billed --

A few high-profile attacks — this one or the one in August — do not change the fundamental, day-to-day reality of life getting better.

I will have more to say on this in the future, but for now I have to get my body armor and head for the Black Hawks to take a trip to southern Iraq.

So this day to day reality of life getting better requires moving visiting Americans around by military helicopter.

This is delusion. Unfortunately, it's influential delusion.

More Vicars of Dibley

The Washington Post rounded up some usual suspects to discuss the Vatican's latest salvo in its relationship with the Anglican Church. Included in them is George Weigel, who never found a George Bush policy that he didn't like. But anyway, Weigel applauds the Vatican's move on the ground that it creates a "moment of clarification" (which was always one of George Bush's favourite phrases when there was a war going on), specifically regarding the divergent positions of the two churches on the ordination of women --

The tensions were evident more than twenty years ago, in a historic exchange of letters among Pope John Paul II, Archbishop Robert Runcie of Canterbury, and Cardinal Johannes Willebrands, the veteran Dutch ecumenist then leading the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.

The Pope and the cardinal asked Runcie to explain the reasoning that had led certain parts of the Anglican communion to ordain women to the ministerial priesthood. Runcie replied in largely sociological, rather than theological, terms, citing women's changing roles in business, culture, and politics.

So let's go read the actual Runcie letter --

The fundamental principle of the Christian economy of salvation-upon which there is no question of disagreement hetween Anglicans and Roman Catholics-is that the Eternal Word assumed our human flesh in order that through the Passion Resurrection and Ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ this same humanity might be redeemed and taken up into the life of the Triune Godhead. In words common to both our liturgical traditions: ‘As he came to share in our humanity, so we may share in the life of his divinity.’

It is also common ground between us that the humanity taken by the Word, and now the risen and ascended humanity of the Lord of all creation, must be a humanity inclusive of women, if half the human race is to share in the Redemption he won for us on the Cross.

Some Anglicans would however then go on to point to the representative nature of the ministerial priesthood. They would argue that priestly character lies precisely in the fact that the priest is commissioned by the Church in ordination to represent the priestly nature of the whole body and also-especially in the presidency of the eucharist-to stand in a special sacramental relationship with Christ as High Priest in whom complete humanity is redeemed and who ever lives to make intercession for us at the right hand of the Father. Because the humanity of Christ our High Priest includes male and female, it is thus urged that the ministerial priesthood should now be opened to women in order the more perfectly to represent Christ’s inclusive High Priesthood.

This argument makes no judgment upon the past, but is strengthened today by the fact that the representational nature of the ministerial priesthood is actually weakened by a solely male priesthood, when exclusively male leadership has been largely surrendered in many human societies.

This is not a "sociological" argument. It's a doctrinal argument that Runcie said has only become more relevant because of sociology. And in fact, one could even argue that it's a fundamentally Catholic argument. If you're going to go to the trouble of creating a hierarchy of sacraments in terms of who is in a deeper relationship with God, then to maintain the claim of universality (or "catholicism", if you will), don't you have to open these sacraments to everybody?

For Weigel and more than a few of the neocon Catholics, it sometimes happens that the real Catholics aren't Catholic at all. For once, we agree!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The ball is flat

Don't get us wrong. Paul Krugman is always a good read. And he's often right. But he's been wrong, wrong, wrong about the British economy going back a full year now, from when he was using Gordon Brown's supposedly brilliant financial sector policies as a stick with which to beat Hank Paulson.

Here's a post from just over 2 months ago which was presumably intended as a riposte to his stimulus critics --

[Bouncing Britain] Two months ago I wrote that there were hints of a relatively quick economic turnaround in Britain. Now those hints have gotten much stronger. Basically, aggressive monetary policy and the depreciation of the pound are giving Britain a boost relative to other advanced countries.

The chart above is the latest data on that boost. GDP growth on annual and quarterly basis. The best that can be said is that rate of output decline at the worst of the recession has not been maintained. But this is an economy still in recession, even as other advanced countries come out of it.

That's some bounce.

Chart: UK Office of National Statistics

Friday, October 23, 2009

The Commonwealth Legion

The conservative group Accuracy in Media is having their 40th anniversary conference in Washington DC today. C-Span is providing a true public service by covering the whole thing live. It's worth tuning it any point to get a sense of the current political environment in the USA and in particular the extent to which views that were once on the fringe of conservatism have gone mainstream conservative.

For the participants, Barack Obama, global warming, the rise of China, the Israel-Palestine question, the fall of Communism, the rise of Islamism etc are the convergence of a relentless march of America-haters who have skillfully manipulated events and perceptions thereof to advance their America-hating agenda.

Since there's already quite enough of the Internet devoted to these theories, enough said. Instead, one side observation about the conference: an out of proportion number of the speakers, telling the loyalists what they wanted to hear, were not American.

Consider this morning. New Zealander Trevor Loudon drawing a line between meat packing strikes in Chicago in the 1940s and a Communist in the White House today, just as the New Zealand hard left had taken over there in the mid-1980s. There was the Irish journalism veteran Ann McElhinney complaining, inter alia, about the challenge of buying non-organic food in Whole Foods. And telling tales of children coming home from school saying that they hate their parents' lifestyles as a result of what they had heard about global warming.

The republican audience (one would assume in both American senses of the word) lapped up the global warming scepticism of the 3rd Viscount Monckton of Brenchley, who assured them all that the science was a massive hoax. He was also signing books outside. And then luncheon speaker Tony Blankley, who despite the long-time career as a Washington media operative, is still somewhere back in the mists of time a Londoner.

So what's the interpretation? The obvious one is that American conspiratorial rabble-rousing is best served up with a Commonwealth (& ex-members) country accent. It seems to add to the credibility. For the audience (and this came up during Loudon's Q&A), it only proves that the conspiracy is indeed so vast that most Americans have already been co-opted by it and only furriners can see the truth. It's worth noting that this is not a new phenomenon: The Telegraph's Ambrose Evans-Pritchard was a critical cog in the Clinton wars of the 1990s, because he would launder the loony theories through the Telegraph, thus providing a legitimate source for the establishment US media to "discuss" the stories.

And for the foreigners, it shows that America is still the land of opportunity. Ireland, New Zealand, and even the UK just don't have the market size on their own to make a living out of knowing that you're right and everyone else is wrong. America has the size and the politics to make it work. Is this a great country or what?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Now there's some outrageous rhetoric

Dick Cheney got the "Keeper of the Flame" award from the Center for Security Policy last night. That's Frank Gaffney's outfit. Cheney is clearly unperturbed by the conspiratorial baggage he's taking on by endorsing Gaffney. But then when your closing lines include the following, Gaffney's stuff is moderate by comparison --

We cannot protect this country by putting politics over security, and turning the guns on our own guys.

One bit of credit to Cheney. It seems he's aware of the problem of claiming that Bush=Cheney got us 8 years without another 9/11 --

We had been the decision makers, but those seven years, four months, and nine days [to Jan 20th 2009] without another 9/11 or worse, were a combined achievement:

But anyway, shouldn't the cable news cycle be devoted to Cheney's claim that Obama is pointing the guns at Americans?

He was there in spirit

Karl Rove in his Wall Street Journal perch --

There is also the heavy whiff of politics in the administration's [Afghan] war deliberations. The president's senior political adviser, David Axelrod, apparently attends war cabinet meetings—something I did not do as President Bush's senior political adviser.

From Bob Woodward's account of the Iraq war run-up --

The president also informed Karl Rove, his chief political strategist, of his decision [that there would be war in Iraq] over the [2002] holidays. Rove had gone to Crawford to brief Bush on the confidential plan for Bush's 2004 reelection campaign. While Laura Bush sat reading a book, Rove gave a PowerPoint presentation on the campaign's strategy, themes and timetable.

Opening his laptop, he displayed for Bush in bold letters on a dark blue background:


Strong Leader
Bold Action
Big Ideas
Peace in World
More Compassionate America
Cares About People Like Me
Leads a Strong Team

All things being equal, the president asked, when would you like to begin the campaign and active fundraising?

Rove said he wanted the president to start that February or March [2003] and begin raising the money, probably $200 million. He had a schedule. In February, March and April 2003, there would be between 12 and 16 fundraisers.

"We got a war coming," the president told Rove flatly, "and you're just going to have to wait." He had decided. "The moment is coming." The president did not give a date, but he left the impression with Rove that it would be January or February or March at the latest.

"Remember the problem with your dad's campaign," Rove replied. "A lot of people said he got started too late."

"I understand," Bush said. "I'll tell you when I'm comfortable with you starting."

So before getting to the bit where Woodward was being spun by his sources [K. Rove], note that Bush was telling Karl Rove over Christmas 2002 that there was going to be a war with Saddam. In public, the suspense was maintained up until March 2003. Technically, Rove wasn't in the "war cabinet". He didn't need to be.

But now note the preposterousness of Bush's supposed sacrifice of campaigning. There wasn't an election coming until November 2004. There was no prospect of an opponent in the Republican primary. So he was still a full 15 months at the earliest from needing to do any serious campaigning.

But Rove wept as Bush forsook some fundraisers in early 2003. And never noticed that Bush telling him there was a war coming could be mapped into the first four criteria of his Powerpoint presentation. The Bush-Rove relationship was You Furnish the Pictures, and I'll Furnish the War. No cabinet meetings necessary.

UPDATE: Headline on Rove op-ed in US edition of WSJ --

Obama Goes Wobbly on Afghanistan

Headline on Con Coughlin op-ed in WSJ European edition --

Brown Goes Wobbly on Afghanistan

So the people who have to make the actual decision about sending troops into danger are "wobbly". The pundits are all for it.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

He knows what a stolen election feels like

National Review's Rich Lowry doesn't like John Kerry's central role in the Afghan election compromise --

Isn't this what Richard Holbrooke was supposed to be doing? Could it be that Holbrooke — diplomat extraordinaire — so badly alienated Karzai in the course of leading the administration's botched handling of the first election that he no longer has any sway with the Afghan leader?

Holbrooke's botched handling of the 1st election amounted to saying that there will have to be a runoff.

There is going to be a runoff.

But anyway, the Wall Street Journal gives us some insights into how Kerry won Karzai over to the inevitable --

That night, Sen. Kerry went to the presidential palace, where the two men, sometimes accompanied by Mr. Eikenberry [US Ambassador] and sometimes alone, hashed out Mr. Karzai's concerns. "We had lot of hours together and talked about a lot of things, including the American experience in elections, and going back to 1864, Al Gore in 2000," Sen. Kerry said. "I think it helped to put it into a certain framework."

It's hard to know what "certain framework" Kerry has in mind, but one might be that when an election is subject to serious doubt, as Florida 2000 was, a complete re-run of the election might not be a bad idea. Legitimacy, mandate, all that stuff. No wonder Lowry is mad.

UPDATE: Lowry comes out against the runoff and doesn't seem too perturbed by the election fraud. Having a leader is more important.

Turbulent Priests

Two unrelated events in Christendom took place yesterday.

First, the Vatican decided to get into the spirit of financial engineering and announced that is is creating a special purpose vehicle (SPV) for the absorption of Anglican dissidents into the Church; the SPVs will have legacy rights to continue certain aspects of Anglican practice, not least the Anglican Mass, but otherwise the new entrants will pledge allegiance to the teachings of the Catholic Church.

Second, the Irish government found itself in a rare war of words with the Church of Ireland, in the form of harsh address by C of I Archbishop of Dublin John Neill who accused the department of education of having an implicit plan to wipe out distinctive Protestant education in Ireland.

The underlying issue is a system of special administrative grants for Protestant fee-paying schools which were cut last year. The Department says that they were unconstitutional. It's weird how grants that worked for 40 years suddenly turned out to be unconstitutional when the bureaucrats were looking for something to cut.

But the grants reflected an Irish solution to an Irish problem. When free public secondary education was brought in in the mid-1960s, it was in the context of a system where the Catholic Church owned most of the schools, the priests were ex officio members of the school boards, and Catechism was on the curriculum. These circumstances are largely intact, but apparently pass constitutional muster. The compromise was that where a C of I school could be sustained, it would get the administrative grants that otherwise only went to the schools within the free public system.

It was the fact that other fee paying schools don't get the special grant that was after 4 decades deemed objectionable. Note the absence of any demonstrated complaint about the system, let alone an attempt to test whether the courts would uphold a system with a clear purpose of protecting a minority religious group.

Anyway, back to the Pope and his wheeze. We can't resist mentioning this subtle dig at Benedict by Timothy Bradshaw in the Times (UK) --

When this powerful central Vatican machine reaches into local church life it can have a negative impact, as when the Pope closed down the Catholic Centre Party in 1930s Germany, a disastrous weakening of opposition to Hitler.

You'd think Papa Ratzi would know that history.

What his move and that of the Irish government have in common is that they are striking at the Anglican church when they think it's weak. The Pope thinks he can peel off the conservative wing and leave only a liberal Rowanesque rump, although the Vatican may not have thought through what happens when already disaffected but persisting Catholics find an influx of de facto evangelicals in their churches. That more relaxed Anglican congregation will still be down the road.

While the Irish government is gambling that the only students seriously affected are those in rural areas where the lack of density makes sustaining a specialized C of I school difficult. Sure can't they sit in the local secondary and just read a book during any religious content? As a cynical calculation, it probably has merit. Rural areas seem more up in arms about a proposed tightening of drink-driving laws than the loss of a few more C of I schools.

But it's a telling commentary on the current self-satisfied definition of Irishness (as reflected in the Angelus) that there's less space for a traditional Irish religious institution to function. It's pointless to note the irony of the country's permanent party of government, Fianna Fáil, gathering last Sunday to celebrate the 1791 founding of the United Irishmen, a movement characterized by a fellowship of Catholic and Protestant Irish nationalists, even as the government undermined the compact of that relationship. For the Vatican and the Irish establishment, it's all in the name of modernity.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Warm up the death panels

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, William McGurn (ex Bush speechwriter) rolls out a recurring anti-health care reform talking point -- that the US spends way more on healthcare than Singapore, so why don't we switch to that system? --

"When I'm asked to describe the differences between the U.S. and Singapore systems, my one-word answer is 'complexity,'" says Dr. Jason Yap, director of marketing for Raffles Hospital, a leading private care facility in downtown Singapore. "There are so many parties in the American system that do not really contribute to care."

Dr. Yap is referring to the higher costs that come from an American system that depends on regulation and oversight to accomplish what Singapore tries to do with competition and choice. At the Raffles lounge for international patients, he shows me an example of the latter. It's a one-page, easy-to-read list of fees.

At the high end of accommodation, a patient can choose the Raffles/Victory suite for about $1,438 per night. That price includes a 24-hour private nurse, a refrigerator stocked with drinks, and an adjoining living room to entertain. At the other end of the scale, a bed in a six-person room goes for just $99.

Dr Yap is having words put in his mouth since he never actually said that it specifically was regulation and oversight that adds to the American's system's costs. The way his quote is presented, he could just as easily be referring to the insurance companies. And note also how the cost quotes are for the bed, not the actual care. You don't get treated for $99/night. But anyway, McGurn says it all must be working because Singapore only spends 4 percent of GDP on healthcare compared to 15 percent for the US.

The above is the Singapore population age distribution. It's unusual. It has relatively few very young people and old people and lots of working age people in between. Most developed countries have a much more even distribution across the various age groups. To put some concrete numbers on it, the US has 6.8 percent of the population in the 0-4 years range compared to 4.4 percent for Singapore, and the US has 12.8 percent at 65 or over compared to 8.8 percent for Singapore (all figures as of 2009 from US Census Bureau).

If you take out lots of expensive young people and lots of expensive old people, then, sure costs go down. Incidentally, Singapore's fertility rate is well below replacement, so they're headed for a future much like the one that the demographic doom mongers say Europe is headed for.

But in the never ending quest for factoids, reduction of healthcare costs by having fewer old people and fewer kids is now apparently the preferred model.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Freaky Gurls

The Superfreakonomics book by Levitt and Dubner has already suffered a pre-emptive strike over its "global cooling" analysis.

The chapter on prostitution is also going to need a look. Daniel Davies has noted the authors' unhealthy interest in this topic. The chapter is in today's Sunday Times (UK). Since everything in Superfreakonomics must be counterintuitive, the counterintuitive message of the prostitution chapter is that less is more: charging a higher rate for paid sex (and so reducing the number of "encounters") is more lucrative.

Being economists, they're obliged to provide an explanation for this and the explanation relies entirely on the demand side. The argument is that since it's now so easy for men to have casual sex (those awful temptresses at college apparently being the problem), the demand for commercial sex has declined and so the service providers have to position themselves at the high end to make any money.

The chapter includes a remarkable claim that begs scrutiny --

Their income [Chicago prostitutes] of roughly $18,000 a year is next to nothing compared with what even low-rent prostitutes in Chicago earned 100 years ago. A woman working in a “dollar house” took home the equivalent of about $76,000 today annually, while prostitutes at the Everleigh Club, the city’s top brothel, could earn the equivalent of about $430,000.

Why has the prostitute’s wage fallen so far? Because demand has fallen dramatically.

Besides the empirical claim about earnings, there is the argument that the only thing that matters for understanding prostitution is the demand side, not the supply side. And now Levitt and Dubner are in much-traversed territory, though they seem not to realize it. For one thing, the apparent infatuation with careers in prostitution has awkward echoes of Gladstone's "rescue missions" in London from the 1840s onwards. From what Gladstone encountered, it sounded very much like (1) the earnings from prostitution were fairly abysmal, but (2) the alternatives -- including his religious mercy houses -- were worse.

Dr. William Acton wrote contemporaneously (1857) about this period. Now although some of Acton's writings are easily ridiculed today (as a Victorian moralist), he also had enough of analytical mind to write the following --

Domestic servants, and girls of decent family, are generally driven headlong to the streets for support of themselves and their babies; needlewomen of some classes by the incompatibility of infant nursing with the discipline of the workshop. Those who take work at home are fortunate enough, and generally too happy, to reconcile continuance of their labours with a mother's nursing duties, and by management retain a permanent connexion with the army of labour, adopting prostitution only when their slender wages become insufficient for their legitimate wants.

In other words, 19th century prostitution was often a matter of unintended pregnancy precipitating a need for income and/or atrocious wages in the few available occupations. Times have changed. So if you're going to do a real economic analysis of prostitution, you'd have to look at the labour force participation of women, occupational patterns, availability of contraception and abortion, and legal and social standards regarding the treatment of working women (especially domestic employees). But that would be a lot more difficult than the Pygmalion frisson that they apparently got from "Allie".

UPDATE: One of the photo illustrations with the Sunday Times chapter is Billie Piper, as in Belle de Jour. So that's the image of prostitution. And of interest to the many Freakonomics bloggers, the Sunday Times excerpt of the global cooling chapter finally has a weblink.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Keep digging

French investigators are worth listening to. In 2001, they were pretty sure that some dude named Zacarias Moussaoui who had they had previously thought was up to no good in France was definitely up to no good in Minnesota.

He was learning how to fly large jets.

So anyway, and unrelated to the above, they have a new probe going, says the Wall Street Journal (subs. req'd) --

The investigating magistrates' preliminary probe stems in part from a 2008 report by France's health-inspection authorities, the people familiar with the investigation said.

In that report, the health authorities said that French-registered charity Airma had spent only 8.4% of the €5 million ($7.4 million) it had collected from 2004 to 2006 on its declared mission of Alzheimer's research, according to the report, which was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

In the report, Airma defended itself by saying it had incurred high legal costs over that period. The French health authorities also described in the report how Airma relied on U.S. marketing company Market Development Group Inc., of Washington, and on the French branch of U.S. company Saturn Corp., which is based in Maryland, to reach out to potential donors via post and email.

Market Development Corp. has an interesting pedigree. Several of the principals have links to Richard A. Viguerie. Who? The dude who is so integral to US conservatism that he has his own name-branded conservative website. You can use your search engine of choice till the cows come home and you will still be finding connections to everyone who's anyone in conservative circles. And by the way, direct mail/fundraising is critical to the Republican political machine. Could such a machine have been deployed for selfish purposes, and in France of all places? Say it ain't so!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

And don't have any kids yourself

National Review guest post from Michael New spinning like a top regarding the embarrassing (for pro-lifers) report from the Alan Guttmacher Institute showing that, inter alia, rates of abortion don't differ with the legal status of abortion across countries --

Most of the countries where abortion is prohibited are in Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. These countries have low per capita income and a higher incidence of social pathologies that may increase the perceived need for abortion. This nuance is not picked up in any of the media coverage of the AGI report.

This particular nuance is so nuanced that it's not clear what the point is. What are these "social pathologies" in countries that ban abortion which also result in high rates of abortion? Stigma against single mothers? Stigma against contraception? Aren't those exactly the issues which pro-lifers in rich countries use to bash social liberals in those countries?

To put it more bluntly, one very obvious social pathology in many poor countries is that attitudes to women are completely f*cked up! Which would lead you to predict exactly the mix of discrimination and pregnancy care underprovision that you see in these countries. That's no nuance. That's goes to the essence of the debate about the regulation of contraception and abortion.

Finally, not every country that bans abortion yet still has abortion is low income. There's Ireland (and Poland, and a few other European countries too). The wheeze there is that neighbouring countries provide it, which cuts down on the health disasters that the Guttmacher Institute finds for poor countries. Which illustrates the general point: one reason countries have abortion bans is because mechanisms emerge to enable official hypocrisy. In poor countries, it's the backstreet abortion. In rich countries, it's money, NGOs, and mobility. Laws on the books keep the zealots happy. But they don't have much to do with sustainable reductions in abortion.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Illiberal fascism

Benito Mussolini is a vital figure in Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism, because among the fascist dictators, he's easiest to peg as someone with vaguely "left" roots (as a worker-agitator) and who enjoyed some general popularity in the 1920s. But now we know that way back in 1917, MI5 knew exactly what they were dealing with -- a demagogue who liked war and who liked the idea of bashing strikers and/or pacifists over the head:

Archived documents have revealed that Mussolini got his start in politics in 1917 with the help of a £100 weekly wage from MI5.

For the British intelligence agency, it must have seemed like a good investment. Mussolini, then a 34-year-old journalist, was not just willing to ensure Italy continued to fight alongside the allies in the first world war by publishing propaganda in his paper. He was also willing to send in the boys to "persuade'' peace protesters to stay at home.

Mussolini's payments were authorised by Sir Samuel Hoare, an MP and MI5's man in Rome, who ran a staff of 100 British intelligence officers in Italy at the time.

Cambridge historian Peter Martland, who discovered details of the deal struck with the future dictator, said: "Britain's least reliable ally in the war at the time was Italy after revolutionary Russia's pullout from the conflict. Mussolini was paid £100 a week from the autumn of 1917 for at least a year to keep up the pro-war campaigning – equivalent to about £6,000 a week today."

If being a pro-war reactionary fond of physical force violence is not an essential characteristic of being Fascist, it's not clear what is. It is possible though that Benito liked fresh mozzarella, which may make him a liberal Fascist.

It's all relative

National Review's Rich Lowry --

By the way, I take issue with his [Ralph Peters] contention earlier in the column that Iraq wasn't in a civil war. Of course it was. By any reasonable standard, that level of sectarian violence and cleansing constitutes a civil war

Rich Lowry on the actual Iraqi civil war --

[Nov 2006] Just a quick note on this semantic brouhaha. It seems obvious that there is a kind of civil war in Iraq, even if it is not a replica of our civil war or (yet?) as violent as some others. So I don't think it's necessarily out-of-bounds for the media to use the phrase (although even some MSM types see an agenda in the big NBC announcement). On the other hand, it is understandable that the U.S. and Iraqi governments want to parse the phrase very closely and avoid it all costs, for fear of the effects it might have on the ground and here in the U.S.

So, what happened? How does the now obvious fact that Iraq was in a civil war in 2006 relate to Lowry's view in 2006 that this was mere semantics, albeit semantics that the Iraqi and US governments were justified in wanting to avoid?

Because, in 2006, it was politically damaging for George W. Bush for it to be said that Iraq was in a civil war. Completely off-message with the demands for "good news from Iraq."

One wonders what contemporary issues might be getting the same treatment from Lowry, in the opposite direction since it's a different President now.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Newt is nuts

Newt Gingrich is still mentioned as a Republican presidential hopeful. He did an interview with National Review. It's worth a look for an understanding of how Newt thinks and by extension what the people who love Newt might think --

Obama, Gingrich adds, “is a radical in the sense that the victory of those values would mean the end of American civilization as we know it.” ... One editor asked Gingrich why America took such a sharp cultural turn after the Second World War. “I think it’s actually, in a bizarre way, the victory of the European intellectuals,” says Gingrich. “It would be interesting to go back and do a study of how this evolved. You have two streams coming together. You have an anti–middle class intellectual elite in the United States. You can go back and read, for example, Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt and Main Street, etc. And you have the European refugees, who bring a very left intellectualism.”

Er, Newt, do you have any specific group in mind for those "refugees" who brought a "left intellectualism"? At least he didn't refer to them as Bolsheviks.

Anyway --

I keep arguing that the most important political phrase of the next ten years is that ‘two plus two equals four,’ which the Poles used against the state. It partly came out of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, where the state torturer says to the citizen: ‘If we tell you that two plus two equals five, it equals five. If we tell you that it equals three, it equals three,’” he says. “Deweyism, in that sense, wanted to create plasticity. William Ayers in that sense is a legitimate disciple of Dewey. How do you get to a revolutionized society? You make sure the people don’t know anything.”

Gingrich likened this to the Left’s current strategy of “saying that $10 trillion in debt doesn’t really matter because you won’t really notice it, and anyway by the time we get to that, something good will have happened.”

Got that ... arguments about public finance are just like the totalitarian state in 1984, because Newt says they are.

Then there's Newt and his favourite refugee left intellectual, Jesus --

Gingrich, a new convert to Catholicism, says that his recent documentaries and books, as well as his own faith, have influenced his politics and philosophy. “I think the centrality of the Eucharist in the Catholic experience, and the degree to which you’re directly infused with Christ, gives me a much higher appreciation of the cost of a totalitarian state on an everyday basis,” he says.

Every day is like Sunday, or something.

“If you read [George] Weigel,” he says, “and think about the points he’s driving at, and then you look at the passion of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to try to destroy every public cross in the country, to try to destroy every reference to religion, you begin to see this intense competition between this secular bureaucracy that literally is terrified of the sight of religion and the desire of humans to have access to being able to approach God without being constantly pressured by the state.”

You'd think that if "you're directly infused with Christ" from the Eucharist then whether or not there's a cross in a desert somewhere really wouldn't matter that much, but it's all clear in Newt's head.

Looking to Afghanistan, Gingrich says, “the real underlying challenge is that this is a much bigger problem than people understand. You can pull out of Afghanistan, and then what? You want to pull out of Pakistan? Fine. And then what? We pulled out of Somalia, and now we have pirates. You think these guys are going away? Or, do you think that this will become a bigger problem? It’s like dealing with Iran. The last few weeks have been worse than Chamberlain. This is Baldwin in 1935, just willfully blind because he didn’t want to tell the British people the truth because it would offend them.”

If things are so dire, then where is America’s Churchill? “I don’t know, we’ll find out,” says Gingrich. “I hope that we can find one.”

The Baldwin reference is a bit strange and at the very least, Baldwin's hesitancy on rearming was reflecting the pacifist mood of the public at the time. But where is the new Churchill? The Christ-infused Newt is too modest to tell us.