Friday, July 30, 2010

Did they split the bill?

In contrast to the usual fuss about residences and palaces, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad took Saudi King Abdullah to dinner at a restaurant -- Nobles' Palace (al-Nubala) in Damascus.

A new trend in head of state visits?

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

English Socialist

As US election season approaches, conservative thinker Stanley Kurtz has announced that he is reviving his 2008 argument that Barack Obama is a lifelong socialist and will have a book -- Radical in Chief -- setting out the case. He elaborates --

Community organizing is a big part of what makes American socialism distinctive, and this, of course, is where Obama comes in.

"Community organizing" is a bizarrely essential element of right-wing demonology about Obama and more broadly about the financial crisis; with regard to the latter, the narrative has it that community organizers forced bank loan officers to give trillions of dollars in mortgages to poor people, whose now-underwater mortgages nearly brought down the global financial system and forced George Bush to increase government intervention in the economy. It was amazingly clever of Obama to have set all this in motion in Chicago 20 years ago, but that's the thing about these nefarious left-wing plots.

But anyway, this obsession with community organizing is coming at a strange time in the Anglo-American currents, because here from just a few days ago is UK Prime Minister David Cameron setting out the philosophy of the government's Big Society initiative --

For a long time the way government has worked – top-down, top-heavy, controlling – has frequently had the effect of sapping responsibility, local innovation and civic action.

It has turned many motivated public sector workers into disillusioned, weary puppets of government targets. It has turned able, capable individuals into passive recipients of state help with little hope for a better future. It has turned lively communities into dull, soulless clones of one another. So we need to turn government completely on its head. The rule of this government should be this: If it unleashes community engagement – we should do it. If it crushes it – we shouldn’t.

And the speech later describes specific efforts that will be taken to support community organizers.

It's going to be fascinating to watch the intellectual gyrations required to make an intrinsically bottom-up and decentralized activity like community organizing into a socialist vanguard. It's more likely that Kurtz will -- as he did in 2008 -- rely on a web of guilt by association, with community organizing being depicted as something that old lefties now do. But the implication for how American conservatives think about freedom of association for disadvantaged people should be clear.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Badge of honour

Newspaper ad in Dubai announces a car recall campaign. For Lamborghini.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Slow news day

Sky News breaking news. Conservative MP David Davis overheard in a pub criticising coalition government.

With recent American media uproars revolving around what people said in emails and tweets, perhaps this was the logical next step.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Too much gold

It's been quite a day for Irish economics. Garret Fitzgerald finds proof in Ireland's austerity experience that we are pragmatic northern Europeans. Paul Krugman finds a belief in leprechauns and faeries at the Economic and Social Research Institute. And Minister for Justice Dermot Ahern unveils a new analysis of the country's problems, one that was clearly in the briefing for today's Cabinet meeting (held, appropriately enough, at a place that the government paid far too much for) --

Mr Ahern said the level of savings had gone up from around 4% to around 12%. He said what we need to do as a nation is to get the people who are saving their money to spend it in the economy.

In other words, Irish people are saving too much. In the 1930s, Keynes figured out why that's the case for governments to spend more. But instead the purpose of the meeting was more cuts. And with the huge overhang of bank bailouts still to be paid for, we wouldn't expect to people to behave any differently -- that money is coming from cuts to public services and higher taxes, so more savings are going to be needed.

Krugman points to an obsession of governments with confidence of "the markets". It seems to the governmment is struggling towards a needed focus on confidence of the citizens.

Second Troy

Bloomberg News collects quotes hailing Ireland --

“The scale of cuts in pay and spending here are unprecedented across Europe,” said Garret FitzGerald, 84, the Irish prime minister in the 1980s who reduced budgets and raised taxes. “We’re Northern European, less emotional, and more accepting of what needs to be done in a crisis.”

You have to read the article a couple of times to see that by the economic measure to which it gives most attention, the budget deficit, Greece is doing much better than Ireland. Especially because it had no banking crisis.

Friday, July 16, 2010

On the home front

If things are looking so dire for Israel's geopolitical situation that people overseas see the need for groups like the Emergency Committee for Israel (a Commentary/Weekly Standard operation on behalf of the Republican candidate in the Pennsylvania US Senate race) and the Friends of Israel (the Aznar/Trimble et al ex-politician outfit), why is Israel itself, under the hawkish Bibi, cutting defence spending?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The most important file

UK Chancellor George Osborne using the oldest meeting trick in the book, the newspaper (The Times, as it happens) buried at the bottom of the materials. Except that he was holding up the materials.

Still, it's a good sign for the UK that he saw the EU meeting as a snoozer, since it's the one that discussed next steps in the EU emergency finance package for countries in distress.

One hopes the Irish representative (Martin Mansergh) was paying attention.

Photo: The Council of the European Union

Spending is futile

The Wall Street Journal editorial page uses forecasts of a modest positive impact of Spain's World Cup win on its economy to prove, to its own satisfaction, that it doesn't matter how much money is spent in any economy --

But there's no such thing as a free celebration, and the money spent celebrating Sunday's 1-0 victory over Holland is, by definition, not available for spending on other things. A household that buys a crate of bubbly to toast Andres Iniesta will certainly improve the wine merchant's fortunes, but probably at the expense of someone else—perhaps a carpenter who had been booked to perform repairs, or wages for a cleaning lady.

To put it another way, winning the World Cup does not expand the Spanish economy's productive capacity, and so the euros spent celebrating have to come from somewhere—either forgone consumption elsewhere, or reduced savings, or increased debt.

So far, so supply side enough. But there's more ...

The labor market for Spain's World Cup heroes may be brighter than ever, but their victory will do nothing for the 20% of the Spanish work force that is currently unemployed. For them, loosening up Spain's still-rigid labor market would do a lot more good than any national party.

Mention of Spain's 20 percent unemployment is where things get crazier than Nigel de Jong's kung fu tackle on Xabi Alonso. Because if Spain's problems were so deep-rooted, you'd expect its unemployment rate to have always been 20 percent.

Two years ago, it was 11 percent.

Which yes, is a tad high for a booming economy but it's a lot less than 20. So why did unemployment go up so much? Because people stopped spending due to the financial crisis. A little World Cup celebrating in that context is just what the doctor ordered.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

That Tuesday Boy problem

"I have two children. One is a boy born on a Tuesday. What is the probability I have two boys?"

Much effort has been expended on this one. The initial presumption is that the answer must be 1/2 or 1/3, depending on how the set up of the question is interpreted.

Actual answer: 13/27. Seeming implication: having a boy born on a Tuesday makes it less likely to have another one. As one would suspect, it's not true. You can do this kind of trick with lots of ancillary events (for boy born night or day, the answer is 3/7).

Sorely lacking in the hours of reading this blogger has done on the topic is any intuition for the 13/27 answer, and indeed the attempted explanations seem to veer ever deeper into the philosophy of probability.

So here's our attempt. By specifying not just that one child is a boy but is one born on a Tuesday, the question has done two things. (1) It has introduced a 2nd characteristic into the event i.e. day of week as well as sex and (2) it has ruled out some events that would otherwise count. Example: 2 boys born on Saturday don't count as positive events. 2 girls born on Saturday already didn't count because of the specification that one child was a boy. In other words, the day-of-week seems irrelevant, but it's still grabbing a portion of the outcome space and putting other parts of it off limits.

The implications of this logic for an opinion poll asking whether the US president is a socialist are left to the reader.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Don't put him down as arrogant

Summer Quiz --

Identify which of the following are titles to (1) Rush albums or (2) Seamus Heaney poetry books.

District and Circle
Power Windows
Seeing Things
Test for Echo
Vapor Trails
The Spirit Level
Opened Ground
Permanent Waves
Caress of Steel
Keeping Going

Answers tomorrow.

UPDATE: Heaney bibliography; Rush discography.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Why you should never connect through JFK

If you think missed connections and lost bags are bad enough ...

Four guns went missing and were believed to have been stolen from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's security detail after American Airlines lost luggage containing the weapons, NBC reported.

It said the Glock 9mm guns had been placed in checked baggage -- as security protocol dictates -- at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport and were supposed to be placed on a flight to Washington for Israeli agents assigned to Netanyahu, who was meeting President Barack Obama on Tuesday.

But workers mistakenly sent the luggage to Los Angeles where it was learned the guns were missing, and police said they believe they were stolen, NBC television reported Tuesday out of New York city.

Someone was set up

Here's a strange one. The Ambassador from the UAE to the USA did a public interview with Jeffrey Goldberg from The Atlantic at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado. But the Washington Times is first out of the block with actual quotes and the apparent scoop -- that the UAE would rather see an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities than have Iran with nuclear weapons. The Washington Times was remarkably efficient in getting approving quotes from a usual suspects list (e.g. John Bolton), while National Review's Cliff May hails "an Arab neocon."

Now Goldberg himself is a tad more circumspect although he also recognizes the Iran scoop in the quotes. But the UAE government has rushed out an official statement denying the imputed meaning of the quotes, if not the quotes themselves --

"These statements came as part of general discussions held on the sidelines of an unofficial gathering and were taken out of their context in which Mr. Otaiba was speaking," the senior official said. "Iran is a neighboring country and we maintain historic relations with it." He stressed that "the UAE respects and believes in the sovereignty of other states and in the principle of non-interference, of all forms, in their internal affairs." "Already, the UAE declared, more than one time and in official statements issued by the Foreign Ministry, its position on the Iranian nuclear issue," Al-Haidan added.

"The UAE totally rejects the use of force as a solution to the Iranian nuclear issue and rather calls for a solution through political means that are based on the international legitimacy, transparency as well as the need for working, through the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), on the right of all states to the peaceful use of nuclear energy.

All that can be said at this point is that Ambassador seems to have been a tad unaware of the hornets nest he was walking into. So let's see the transcript and perhaps the likely "recall for consultations". Worth watching.

UPDATE: The Wall Street Journal says that there were two sets of remarks, one in public to Goldberg and another on the sidelines (and perhaps off the record) to the Washington Times.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

The Hand of God takes it up a notch

Interview with Uruguay's Luis Suárez, the man who pushed the rules of soccer to the limit to benefit his team vs Ghana --

"Era la circunstancia del momento, no me quedaba otra situación y la mano de Dios la tengo yo ahora", dijo Suárez ... "Cuando me iba estaba mirando en la pantalla gigante y le pedía a Dios que lo erraran, y que pasara un milagro… y pasó", comentó casi incrédulo.

Roughly speaking ... it was the circumstance of the moment, I had no other option and the Hand of God, I have it now .. when I was watching on the big screen I asked God for mistakes (in the penalty kicks) and what will happen .. a miracle happened.

So God not only helped out with the handball but made the Ghanaians miss their kicks. That's some God!

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Ireland's fiscal experiment

Paul Krugman and National Review's Stephen Spruiell have been e-duelling about whether Ireland's experience shows that tight budgets work. We've outlined our position here and here. Anyway, Spruiell takes another run at it today noting that relatively non-austere Spain seems headed for another ratings downgrade and that its credit default swap spreads, which once looked somewhat better than Ireland's (part of Krugman's argument) now look just as bad. And in addition, since Ireland's crash was worse and the economy was more constrained by the Euro, the outcomes don't look great but would even have been worse without the austerity.

So to repeat and augment what we've said before.

First, credit default swap spreads on their own don't tell much of a story. Actual debt problems are driven by the yields needed to sell new debt. Right now, Ireland is selling 8 year bonds at 5%. Germany sells at 2.3%. That's not good for an economy that is still shrinking in current value terms (one quarter's growth in output not withstanding).

Second, the most direct measure of whether budget cuts are working is, er, whether they actually cut the deficit. Ireland has yet to show that it can do that. Yes, it can cut relative to the "it would even have been worse without the cuts" scenario. But that doesn't change the ugly economics of borrowing 12-15% of GDP a year.

But finally (and this is something that the a lot of the outside scribblers on Ireland miss) -- the big story is the banks. Ireland could achieve all the budget stringency in the world and it doesn't change at all the massive exposure to the banking sector through the liability guarantee and the bailout of the nationalized Anglo Irish Bank. It's excessive deference to lenders to Irish banks, and not lenders to the government, that has Ireland in so much trouble. It's doubtful any fiscal policy -- stimulus or shrinkage -- can overcome that kind of exposure.

Russian spy network latest

No one could have conceived of a strange Russian-accented person with gadgets effortlessly blending into American suburbia. Never been done.

That's their man

Karl Rove uses this week's Wall Street Journal column to describe Barack Obama's supposed defeat at the G20 summit in Toronto, but as he assembles his evidence, this appears --

The European Union president (sic), Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, tore into Mr. Obama's stimulus and other spending policies in a stunning address to the European Parliament in March 2009, calling them "the road to hell" and saying "the United States did not take the right path."

One assumes that his summer intern could only find a couple of suitable G20 quotes so he had to dig up a 15 month old story to augment his case. And Mirek Topolanek is one of those where are they now people. His government collapsed in the middle of the Czech EU presidency, he had a cameo appearance in those embarrassing Berlusconi videos, and most recently he was in the news when ...

He said that Transport Minister Gustav Slamecka is a homosexual who "gives in" when he faces a serious problem." About Prime Minister Jan Fischer, he said, "he's simply a Jew; he's not gay and he gives in even sooner." Fischer is Jewish. Slamecka has not publicly commented on his sexual orientation. Topolanek also accused the Roman Catholic church of "brainwashing" believers.

The comments came in an interview for a gay magazine in which he provided the above pose.

And he's one of Karl Rove's inspirations.