Sunday, January 31, 2016

Briefly noted

Andrew Roberts (in the Sunday Telegraph) does a tour through the Trump-Mussolini comparisons, but like many conservative writers, he ignores the more obvious comparison of Trump with Silvio Berlusconi (seen above at AC Milan's match with Inter on Sunday). Could it be that Mussolini is the preferred comparator because it's easier, at least if one resorts to the argumentative style of Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism, to then claim that Trump is not conservative?

AP Photo/Luca Bruno

Saturday, January 30, 2016

The coveted David Brooks endorsement

David Brooks' New York Times column yesterday --

There are two natural approaches to help those who are falling behind. The first we’ll call the Bernie Sanders approach. Focus on economics. Provide people with money and jobs and their lifestyles will become more stable. Marriage rates will rise. Depression rates will drop. The second should be the conservative approach. Focus on social norms, community bonds and a nurturing civic fabric. People need relationships and basic security before they can respond to economic incentives. But Republicans have walked away from their traditional Burkean turf. The two leading Republican presidential candidates offer little more than nativism and demagogy. David Cameron has offered an agenda for a nation that is coming apart. There desperately needs to be an American version.

Leave aside that Brooks has been hailing the significance of David Cameron speeches for over ten years. There is a Burkean conservative, running in the Republican presidential primary, who is drawing precisely on Tory ideas; as he said in his own words a while ago:

Conservatives on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond are charting a new vision of social justice. It recognizes that the problems caused or aggravated by the growth in government cannot be corrected by a crude reduction in its size. Policy must also deliberately foster the growth of what Edmund Burke called “the little platoons” of civil society: families, neighborhood associations, private enterprises, charities and churches. These are the real source of economic growth and social vitality.

His name: Rick Santorum.

The above words were written by Santorum and Iain Duncan Smith 10 years ago. Indeed, when David Brooks mourned the exit of Santorum from the Senate soon after that piece was written, a loss he blamed on Philadelphia and Pittsburgh bobos, he wondered what would happen to Santorum's agenda.  Brooks rediscovered Santorum when was running 4 years ago, but then dropped it again.

So what happened? Well, when "social justice conservatives" got around to actually proposing some specific policies, it turned out to be just the old "on yer bike" prescription in more tasteful packaging. Paul Ryan has the same shtick today. Trump and Cruz are not substitutes for that agenda, but the logical consequence of its non-delivery and its lack of credibility with lower income households. Incidentally, when Santorum was most gung-ho about social justice conservatism, his book "It takes a family" was explicitly pitched in opposition to another current presidential candidate who was talking about how families need a level of support between themselves and the government.

Her name: Hillary Clinton. Burkean conservatives might like her policies.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Afraid to call it by its true name

A click-by drop-in the Republican "kiddie table" debate last night was enough to be made aware of what is presumably National Rifle Association-approved terminology for spree killings (via CBS News) --

to identify people who actually might be dangerous and who abuse Second Amendment rights.

That's courtesy of lesser Presidential candidate former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore. You see the trick: they're not crazy people with guns, they're people who abuse 2nd amendment rights!

Next time is different

The International Monetary Fund used a wheeze to lend huge amounts of money to Greece in 2010 without requiring that existing Greek debt should be restructured, even though it was (and is) clearly unpayable. The wheeze was to declare that if there was a possibility that financial markets would freak out about debt being restructured, but the country still needed the money, the IMF could lend the money anyway. That was called the systemic exemption. It did succeed in ramming through the money for Greece, but not much else about it has worked, so it's being abolished. Except that it hasn't entirely gone away --

The new policy would also allow the IMF to deal with rare “tail-event” cases where even a reprofiling [short extension of due date] is considered untenable because of contagion risks so severe that they cannot be managed with normal defensive policy measures. In these rare cases, the IMF could still provide large-scale financing without a debt operation [restructuring], but would require that its official partners also provide financing on terms sufficiently favorable to backstop debt sustainability and safeguard IMF resources. This could be done through assurances that the terms of the financing provided by other official creditors could be modified in the future if needed (say in the event of downside risks materializing). If official partners could not provide such assurances (or if the member’s debt was deemed unsustainable at the outset), the terms of official financing would have to be sufficiently favorable to bring debt to the green zone.

So just at the time when financial market behaviour is looking more puzzling than ever, the exemption is still there for events declared to be "rare" and there's big wiggle room in the provision for other partners (such as the Eurozone's beloved Troika) to simply promise that they'll do something if something particular happens in the future. The financial system thrives on risk because of an assumption that if really bad risk materializes, a different set of rules than normal will apply. And that's the signal they're still getting from the IMF.

Maybe he was too young to remember 9/11

Marco Rubio in last night's debate (transcript via New York Times) --

ISIS is the most dangerous jihadist group in the history of mankind. ISIS is now found in affiliates in over a dozen countries. ISIS is a group that burns people alive in cages; that sells off little girls as brides. ISIS is a group that wants to trigger an apocalyptic showdown in the city of Dabiq — not the city of Dubuque; I mis-said — mis-said that wrong once (inaudible) time — the city of Dabiq in Syria. They want to trigger an apocalyptic Armageddon showdown. This group needs to be confronted and defeated. They are not going to go away on their own. They’re not going to turn into stockbrokers overnight or open up a chain of car washes. They need to be defeated militarily, and that will take overwhelming U.S. force.

Thus in one debate segment he: forgets completely about Al Qaeda, notes that ISIS wants a massive military showdown in Syria, and then promises to give it to them! Besides stepping into a similar contradiction that Cruz caught him in last time, both he and Cruz said they wouldn't vote to authorize the use of force in Syria in 2013 ("red line") because that would have been against Bashar al-Assad, not ISIS  ... even though there was no ISIS before Bashar al-Assad started killing protestors. Rand Paul had, as usual, the intellectual consistency to argue that it was futile to bomb either of them.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Another culprit

The report of the legislative inquiry into Ireland's banking and fiscal crisis was finally published yesterday. Although the report doesn't have any real bombshells or directions, it's still an achievement as a consensus assessment by an often dysfunctional political system of what went wrong. Anyway. despite a rich cast of villains, there's one trail not pursued by the report despite its shadow being in several places. Specifically (page 13) --

The Constitution allows significant decision-making powers by Cabinet to make far-reaching decisions without any prior engagement with the Oireachtas (parliament). Members of the Oireachtas, including the Opposition are constrained, with the added issue of limited resources, in their ability to influence the decision-making process.

Later in the report, it's mentioned that the mid-2000s Central Bank was reluctant to use its apparent enforcement powers against banks, because of fears of a constitutional challenge (page 147). As a meta-challenge, the report itself was constrained in its approach and access to information by constitutional issues.

Yet though Ireland has amended its 1937 constitution in many ways despite the big hurdle to doing so -- the need for a referendum -- nothing in the report's recommendations points to the constitution itself, or at least the interpretative industry that has grown around it, as something that needs amending. That's a big blind spot.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Those crazy Gulf Arabs and their petrol subsidies!

Bloomberg News

Drivers in the U.S. oil hub of Houston can fill their tanks for less than the cost in Abu Dhabi and Dubai for the first time since 2008 as falling crude prices push Middle East exporters to cut government fuel subsidies.

This goes back to the point that gun sales were not the only thing at record levels in 2015.

They didn't build that

New York Times interesting detail on the history of Tyco, which will merge with Wisconsin-based Johnson Controls and use Tyco's Cork headquarters for the combined company in another corporate inversion --

The transaction signals the end of the Tyco name, which started in 1960 when the company was a small research laboratory for the United States government, later growing into an industrial giant through a series of diverse acquisitions. 

A small firm that got its first break from ... the government!

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Our overhasty storm

The Telegraph is getting great clickbait mileage out of "Storm Jonas." In other words, the predictable reductio ad absurdum nears. The UK and Irish met offices got into the Weather Channel mania of naming winter storms. Jonas is an American winter storm that is not named by the US National Weather Service because, er, it's a winter storm. The remnant of the Atlantic low that once was Jonas arrived in Britain and Ireland, but was not deemed by the respective met offices to rise to the next scheduled name, Gertrude. So the media gave it the Weather Channel name anyway!

Monday, January 25, 2016

Henry killed prisoners of war

The New York Times has an informative look back at the impression -- or lack thereof -- that Ted Cruz made as part of the George W. Bush legal team in the Bush v Gore Florida election dispute in 2000. But to read it is to  be reminded of what was essentially a suppressed election, since the final decision was to not count all valid votes in Florida. Anyway, here's the incident associated with the photo above --

Another lawyer, Noel J. Francisco, recalled pausing his work with Mr. Cruz at one point for a literary break. “We kind of locked arms, and we read out the St. Crispin’s Day speech from ‘Henry V,’ ” he said. “ ‘We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.’ I have a picture of that in my office.”

That ability to imagine themselves as players in a myth-heroic historical chapter when what was actually going on was a stolen election is an insight not into Cruz but the entire Republican establishment. That's where diagnoses of where things have gone wrong for them might want to dwell.

Koch Brothers increasing US dependence on Arab oil!

Reuters --

Several oil-trading sources have said that U.S. refiner Koch may have fixed a tanker to ship 2 million barrels of Omani crude to the U.S. Gulf Coast. The company declined to comment. The shipment would be the United States' first crude imports from Oman since 2013, according to data from the Energy Information Administration (EIA). "Maybe Koch can take it into its own system, but refiners there are not too keen on the grade. Basrah Heavy is much better," said Adi Imsirovic, a member of the Surrey University Energy Economics Centre, referring to the Iraqi grade.

The logic is complicated; essentially all the yelling and screaming about the urgent need to allow American crude oil to be exported has in fact created an incentive to import oil because of the price differentials. It goes to show how oil market policy is especially unsuited to sloganeering.

Incidentally, the fact that the domestic oil industry faces more competition when export restrictions are lifted is, in an obtuse way, why Ted Cruz is an American and not a Canadian. That was part of the 1970s tradeoff between living in Texas or Alberta.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Arab Spring, changed utterly version

Jordan's King Abdullah in Aqaba attending the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Great Arab Revolt against Ottoman rule. His great-grandfather Sharif Hussein, Lawrence of Arabia, all that stuff. It's a revolt that succeeded but then veered off in completely unintended directions: facilitating the emergence of Saudi Arabia, and via the creation of unstable monarchies in Iraq and Syria, opening the way for Baathism and a decades-long sequence of disastrous miscalculations, the latest of which unfolds in Syria today. Of course, it's a story that can't be told without reference to two World Wars and continued interventions of western countries in the Arab world. Like Easter 1916 in Dublin, an anniversary to be observed in mind of what came later.

Photo: Petra News Agency.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Davos must be really pricey this year

Wall Street Journal on big financial investor musings at Davos --

Elliott Management chief Paul Singer, who runs a $26 billion hedge fund, said, “If central banks double down on their policies of QE, ZIRP and NIRP, it could cause a loss of confidence in central bankers, paper money in general, or one or more currencies, and lead to a collapse in bonds and stock prices.”

Paul Krugman explained a few months back the context in which comments like these should be judged. Singer believes that a President Rubio would solve the above problems.

Parkinson's Law meets PPPs via Sir Humphrey

Then UK Treasury has been under years of pressure to show that Public Private Partnerships (PPP) and the associated Private Finance Initiative (PFI) actually save any more relative to plain old public delivery. That same PPP mania spread to to the Republic of Ireland and left some of the country's best farmland paved over for underused toll motorways.

Anyway, as part of the general effort under George Osborne to generate all sorts of miraculous savings that will pay for new infrastructure while cutting taxes, there's an updated "code of conduct" for existing contracts on how savings can be generated. Except that it's not a guide to generating any actual savings -- it's entirely a process for discussing how it might be done. Example, for the private operator side of the contract --

Ensure constructive engagement with their PFI/PPP partners, including the public sector, through the reasonable interpretation, taking account of professional responsibilities and obligations, of all existing rights and obligations set out in the project documents so as to facilitate a clear understanding by the public sector and its stakeholders of the costs and benefits of efficiency and savings opportunities.

The entire document (a mercifully short 3 pages) is the same Yes, Minister blather just updated to the mid-2010s. Though as usual for Yes, Minister, there's a sentence in there that tells the truth for anyone who knows where to look:

It is recognised that due to the multi party nature of PFI/PPP projects it may not be possible for individual signatories to deliver efficiencies and savings on behalf of their partners. The commitments set out below should therefore be interpreted and applied by each party in the context of the involvement and role of that party in each transaction.

In other words, since there are so many players in these projects, it's difficult to generate cost savings because everyone can define their own area so narrowly. If only there was a single operator of the entire project who could take the national perspective!

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

How many battalions does Davos have?

In a widely cited article, the New York Times' Andrew Ross Sorkin says that the problem with the Davos World Economic Forum is that it's so sanitized, exemplified in the exclusion of the World's Looniest Country, North Korea, from this year's event. Certainly it would have been nice to know if a DPRK official has something to add to the perpetual shouting and roaring across the DMZ, but it's difficult to see that on its own as a revealing a gap.

But the more telling absence from Davos this year is the German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Although at first attributed to the fallout from the Cologne fiasco, and then denied, it seems clear that Mrs Merkel correctly calculated that praise at Davos for her migrant policy would backfire at home. Indeed the sense that it's a self-validating elite talking to each other couldn't be clearer with Christine Lagarde there to release an on-message refugee report. That's not the audience that needed to be convinced. But maybe they need the time to decide how they'll explain it to the rest of us.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The new Middle East

In a sign that Saudi Arabia is not relaxing its diplomatic offensive against Iran, the government has today released (via Saudi Press Agency) a documentation of what it describes as decades of support to terrorism, including --

20.Iran was involved in Buenos Aires bombings in 1994, which resulted in the deaths of 85 people and the wounding 300 others. In 2003, British police arrested Hade Pour Soleimanpour, Iran's former ambassador to Argentina, for conspiring to carry out attack.

That would be the bombing of the Jewish center in Argentina's capital, where indeed it is generally although not universally accepted that a Hezbollah cell operating with Iranian support was responsible.

The news is therefore that Saudi Arabia, however obliquely, is including an Israel grievance in its list.

Wanting to be Kobe Bryant

Competition between rebel/insurgent/terrorist groups has always been an important driver of overall conflict between such groups and whatever institution it is that they're jointly, ostensibly, fighting. Hence the significance of this Le Monde story noting that the terrorist coalition that mounted the Burkina Faso hotel attack under the banner of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb apparently live broadcast at least part of the incident to its followers who knew where to look. As the article says, it looks like an attempt to one-up the slick media productions of ISIS. By the same token, splintering these groups through a seemingly successful military approach could just be making the problem worse.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Wrong but right

"If we go for the international solution, the map [of the region] will not stay the way it is now."

That's PLO leader Yasser Arafat in August 1990 explaining to Arab League summit leaders his disastrous decision to back (or at least not oppose) Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait, with a UN resolution already on the table authorizing the use of force to evict Saddam. A quarter of a century ago yesterday, a US-led coalition (including Syria!) began the assault to retake Kuwait. Unfortunately, a sequence of milestones, of which this was one, confirmed that the Arab world could not in fact sustain the rupture caused by the invasion. It just took a while for the full effects to become apparent.

Friday, January 15, 2016

And the US hasn't had to invade anywhere because of them

Which quiet US ally: acts as mediator on just about every US interaction with Iran, including the nuclear deal; periodically gets foreign hostages out of Yemen; avoids any military adventures in its region; and, just took in ten Guantanamo Bay detainees with nowhere else to go?

That would be Oman. The Middle East and Gulf doesn't have to be perfect to be a lot less troubled than it is now. Oman shows it can be done.

One reason why Marco Rubio made no inroads against Ted Cruz

From the debate last night --

BARTIROMO: So your thinking [on immigration reform] has changed? 

RUBIO: The issue is a dramatically different issue than it was 24 months ago. Twenty-four months ago, 36 months ago, you did not have a group of radical crazies named ISIS who were burning people in cages and recruiting people to enter our country legally. They have a sophisticated understanding of our legal immigration system and we now have an obligation to ensure that they are not able to use that system against us. The entire system of legal immigration must now be reexamined for security first and foremost, with an eye on ISIS. Because they’re recruiting people to enter this country as engineers, posing as doctors, posing as refugees. We know this for a fact. They’ve contacted the trafficking networks in the Western Hemisphere to get people in through the southern border. And they got a killer in San Bernardino in posing as a fiance. This issue now has to be about stopping ISIS entering the United States, and when I’m president we will. 

BARTIROMO: Thank you, Senator. (APPLAUSE) 

 CRUZ: But Maria, radical Islamic terrorism was not invented 24 months ago; 24 months ago, we had Al Qaida. We had Boko Haram. We had Hamas. We had Hezbollah. We had Iran putting operatives in South America and Central America. It’s the reason why I stood with Jeff Sessions and Steve King and led the fight to stop the Gang of Eight amnesty bill, because it was clear then, like it’s clear now, that border security is national security.

Rubio's statement that Islamist terrorism scaled up as a threat within the last two years is preposterous. The 9/11 hijackers all came to the US on various visas. Cruz busted him on it. The Rubio bubble (Rubble?) is going nowhere.

Aren't they uncool now?

White House statement on the ISIS-related attack in Jakarta --

Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and friends of the victims of this heinous attack.

The style guide has been updated for mass shooting statements, but apparently not terrorism statements.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Nothing to do with the Moors

As this Reuters article along with the latest news from the November Paris shootings investigation -- the identification of the 3rd person killed in the St Denis siege -- make clear, the Morocco angle is becoming more and more significant in the threads of the investigation. This should give pause for thought to (1) Friedmanite declarations about specific islands of decency and (2) the instinct look for a Saudi angle on every terrorist incident.

For some, it's a feature not a bug

Wall Street Journal's Simon Nixon with a good roundup of the issues at stake for Ireland in Brexit, concludes --

That would reduce Ulster (sic) once again (sic) to the status of an English colony with all the grim historical baggage that this would entail—something that ought to put the Irish question high on the agenda for all referendum voters, not just the minority who are themselves Irish.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Absolutely nothing to do with Islam

This is the image that currently appears with the Iranian news agency Fars story on the detention of 10 American sailors, allegedly in Iranian waters. The Combating Terrorist Center at West Point explains the logo --

an assault rifle in a raised fist, a globe hinting at the global expansion of the Islamic revolution, a copy of the Holy Qur’an, the caption “Sipah Pasdaran Inqilab Islami” (“Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps”) and the partial Qur’anic verse (Q8:60): “wa-a‘iddu lahum ma istata‘tum min quwwa” (“and prepare for them what you can by way of power/ strength”).

David Bowie obituary: cranky note

The BBC obituary refers to his 1970s period in Berlin. The New York Times obituary refers to it being in West Berlin. Surely the NYT approach is more accurate? That's what it was then, and being in one part of a divided city with that part itself being an enclave in a non-harmonious relationship with its hinterland was part of the edginess and surreal atmosphere that suited him. Just saying it was Berlin dilutes that, especially for the kids!

Monday, January 11, 2016

David Bowie

Not much to add. It's great that young children arrive at Bowie awareness through his SpongeBob Squarepants voice roles and then gradually realize the layers of genius that await further explorations of him. The BBC rolling tribute page is good. Interesting but not surprising to see the early 80s New Wave bands register his influence on them. There's now an inactive link between the numerous strands of music that he energized.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Star Wars: The Force Awakens analogy to real world revealed

Luke's prolonged exile in County Kerry Jedi temple island while chaos unfolded for everyone he'd known is a bit like how Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has managed to spend most of the last 40 years in Najaf, Iraq, in seclusion while his country experiences the Death Star, the Starkiller, and just about every other bad thing that can happen to a people.

Baghdad awaits his return.

Economic migrants

Rafael B. Cruz, the father of Republican Presidential candidate Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), lived in Canada between 1970 and 1974. He and his wife (a US citizen) ran an oil services company. The discussion around the natural born citizenship of Ted Cruz has covered many angles, but it's strangely silent on the economic climate which would have factored into the decisions of Rafael Cruz and Eleanor Darragh about where to live.

In the early 1970s, global oil prices were still low but production was peaking in many mature oil fields in western countries, including in Texas, and the big potential lay in the Middle East. However, Alberta was literally protected from the full effects of Middle East competition by a Canadian federal government oil policy which restricted oil imports to the Atlantic provinces and eastern Ontario. The rest of the Canadian market was reserved for Canadian crude, which essentially meant Alberta crude (the effects of that policy persist into the Keystone XL debate). That price differential meant excess profits which  made it a good time to be in the Alberta oil industry -- or to move to there.

In 1973, everything changed. The Arab oil embargo moved the import price far above the western Canada price and now Alberta had a major incentive to export outside its protected market. But precisely for that reason, the federal government was casting a covetous eye on the profit and production potential of Alberta oil, and looking at significant price and export restrictions to enforce a revamped national oil policy. At the same time, the Trudeau (Pierre, not Justin) Liberal government was looking at ways to restrict foreign ownership in Canada, given a perception that many industries, including oil, were US-owned. This culminated in de facto preference for Canadian control of corporate investments, and Canadian citizenship would be necessary but not sufficient to prove control. Finally, to exert more federal control over the oil industry, and to ensure investment in expanding production, the state-owned Petro Canada was established.

In short, by 1974, Alberta was in an "oil war" with the federal government that, whatever its outcome, was going to limit the extent of the party. Texas, with its more integrated and politically connected oil industry, must have looked like a better bet; the land of JR Ewing awaited. So the Cruz family moved back to the USA.

If the oil price spike of 1973 had not happened, the Cruz parents might well have decided that Alberta was the cushier long-term opportunity. Ted Cruz would therefore have deployed his social skills at UBC and his political skills to be in the running for Premier of Alberta or maybe even Prime Minister of Canada. That's the strange thing about migration -- the what-ifs become exponential. You'd think those possibilities would come with a little self-awareness about the random things that can happen to people. Ted Cruz doesn't display much of that.

UPDATE: Short version of the above -- the current Ted Cruz situation is all the fault of Pierre Trudeau. There's significant evidence that Rafael Cruz intended to make his life in Alberta until Trudeau declared war on the Sheikh Yaman-eh oil profits in the province. 

Saturday, January 09, 2016

Good guy with a gun

France had a sufficiently bad 2015 that the dust has not even settled on the November attacks while the anniversaries of the January attacks (Charle Hebdo, kosher supermarket) are being observed.

About the Bataclan atrocity in particular, there's a striking and even shocking fact that many people don't seem to have absorbed, especially in the knee-jerk (and understandable) ridicule of a Trump-style claim that more guns would have helped:

All of the killing of civilians was stopped by one person with a gun, the single local (petty crime patrol) police offer who arrived on the scene after 15 minutes. He killed one of the attackers, causing the others to retreat and hold hostages.

The final siege ended almost 3 hours later, conducted by specialized anti-terrorist police who had taken half an hour to arrive.

The evening's events are still being investigated so perhaps the government will eventually come up with a more comprehensive set of findings and implications. And it may be that the most basic implication is that the local armed police can and should the first line of defence -- something that would also have helped in Cologne. But it also means that it's not obviously wrong to say that the problem in the Bataclan is that only the bad guys had guns.

We need to talk about the gun

Philadelphia Inquirer reporting in the case of the attempted murder of a city police officer by a man who explained that he had pledged allegiance to ISIS --

[Suspect Edward] Archer was armed with a semi-automatic 9mm pistol - a police-issued firearm that had been reported stolen from an officer's home in 2013, Ross said. He said it was unclear how Archer got the gun. 

That event is no less mysterious than the extended Hajj visit to Saudi Arabia in 2011 -- a logistically difficult enterprise not obviously feasible for someone of Archer's apparent difficult circumstances.

Billionaires for sanity

Charles Koch in his Financial Times lunch chat --

He then expounds on the war on terror. “We have been doing this for a dozen years. We invaded Afghanistan. We invaded Iraq. Has that made us safer? Has that made the world safer? It seems like we’re more worried about it now than we were then, so we need to examine these strategies.”

Friday, January 08, 2016

The gilded cage

The Financial Times' Philip Stephens cites an unnamed Israeli diplomat musing on the long-term orientations of Iran and Saudi Arabia and how this probably favours Iran --

Any nation in this part of the world that allocated 60 per cent of its university places to women [Iran] had to have something going for it.

Fact: Iran and Saudi Arabia have very similar levels of female to male enrolment in university, both ratios favour women, and Saudi Arabia if anything has higher enrolments overall, so it's sending both more people and more women in particular to university than Iran.

Of course there are deeper issues at play, not least that going to university is a way for Saudi women to put in abeyance the later discrimination they'll face when they look for work. But a Davos-style factoid about Iran's university system -- which has its own downside -- is not very helpful.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Drive-by shoot at the sun

Americans bought a record number of guns in 2015. They also bought a record number of motor vehicles, especially heavier low MPG Sport Utility Vehicles. The fact that the US retail price of gasoline tracks the global oil price due to low taxes certainly sent the signal that large vehicles were the way to go.

The increased stock of guns is of course a significant public health problem. But most of those guns are going to sit unused forever as their owners fail to find any punks who feel lucky and make their day.

The cars and trucks however will be driven a lot, and more of them will be accumulated while gasoline prices stay low. And that's immediately in the wake of the Paris climate deal with the first real signs of a greenhouse gas reduction target.

Gun control is at least being debated, however dim the prospects of reform. But there's not a word about the implications of US households loading up with a new influx of the most carbon-spewing vehicles anywhere in the world.

In the long-term, that's going to be the biggest problem.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

About that Russian intervention in Syria

BBC News --

About 11,000 people [Syrian displaced] were massed at Rukban, about 8km (5 miles) to the west of the point at which the Iraq, Syria, and Jordan borders meet, and 1,000 at Hadalat, some 90km further west, spokeswoman Melissa Fleming told reporters. They included children, women and others who were "vulnerable and really need help", she added. Many of them are believed to have fled air strikes by Russia, which supports Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, on areas controlled by the jihadist group Islamic State (IS) in eastern Homs province and neighbouring Raqqa.

You'll never beat the Irish

From yesterday's House of Commons debate following David Cameron's statement where he blustered through the fact that his EU negotiation strategy ahead of the Brexit referendum is in deep trouble --

The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. One of the strongest voices of support for the British renegotiation was the Irish Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, who made a brilliant speech at the European Council, for which I will for ever be very grateful. The Republic of Ireland wants Britain to stay in the European Union, because all sorts of difficult issues would arise in respect of the border and other things if we were outside it. Of course, the Republic of Ireland sees Britain as a strong voice in Europe for many of the things it believes in. Look, we have to get this deal right, and then we need to bring all the arguments to bear on both sides of the case. I think that what is said by those in the Republic and in Northern Ireland will make a big difference.

Tuesday, January 05, 2016

The diplomacy stage

While Kuwait has today joined Saudi Arabia in the latest feud with Iran by withdrawing its ambassador from Tehran, signs suggest that their heart is not entirely in it. For one thing, withdrawing the ambassador is not the same thing as shutting down their Tehran embassy. For another, they've released a photo from the meeting of the Iranian ambassador in Kuwait with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where it's said he was presented with a protest note. The meeting looks fairly cordial!

Photo via Kuwait News Agency.

Monday, January 04, 2016

Long memories

Wall Street Journal editorial "Who lost the Saudis?" --

Nouri al-Maliki, the Iranian ally and former Prime Minister of Iraq, put regime change on the table by saying the execution [of Sheikh Nimr] “will topple the Saudi regime as the crime of executing the martyr al-Sadr did to Saddam” Hussein. He was referring to the death of another prominent Shiite cleric in Iraq in 1980.

That "martyr al-Sadr" would be Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, the father-in-law of Moqtada al-Sadr. This would thus be another example of the memory loss that has occurred with Moqtada al-Sadr being the designated "bad guy" during various periods of Iraq's post-2003 strife. Saddam murdered part of his family when he was young. He's not going to meet foreign policy elite standards of good behaviour, as Maliki would confirm from his own dust-ups with Moqtada. Anyway, the WSJ sees such quotes as part of an emerging threat of regime change to a US ally. But as the al-Sadr example shows, it's a risk with unpredictable slow-burning consequences that was taken by the Saudis themselves.

Sunday, January 03, 2016

Their own creation

The American political media apparatus spent two weeks discussing the possibility -- false when it was first proposed by Hillary Clinton -- that ISIS might use Donald Trump as a recruitment tool in a video. Now they're reporting the news that the Somali al Qaeda affiliate al Shabaab (which is not ISIS, but anyway) had the idea of putting Donald Trump in one of their videos! As usual, the self-sustaining idiocy is obscuring the substantive information. In this case, the star of the al Shabaab video is not Trump, but Anwar al-Awlaki, the man who was inspiring Islamist terrorist attacks long before inspiring terrorist attacks was formally declared a thing. The fact that al-Awlaki's influence has clearly jumped the Gulf of Aden from Yemen to Somalia illustrates again a point laid out in this New York Times Sunday magazine piece from a few months ago: President Obama's drone strike against al-Awlaki was both constitutionally dubious and strategically a mistake, since his influence has only grown since his death.

Saturday, January 02, 2016

Not entirely gone

An Iraqi Christian family in Basra. Photo via the always excellent Iraqi newspaper Al Mada. It would be worth considering the prospects of these dwindling families before any rush to declare that Iraq is a Sykes-Picot dead letter and should just be allowed to dissolve.

The lesser option

Statement issued by the Saudi Arabia Ministry of Interior justifying the 47 executions today, including of the Shiite cleric Nimr Baqer Ameen Al-Nimr who seems to have been executed on the basis of linking dissenting statements to violence in which he played no direct role --

Allah Almighty says in the Holy Quran, ' The recompense of those who wage war against Allah and His Messenger and do mischief in the land is only that they shall be killed or crucified or their hands and their feet be cut off from opposite sides, or be exiled from the land. That is their disgrace in this world and a great torment is theirs in the Hereafter'.

A supporting statement from the Grand Mufti uses the same quote. One of the grounds on which aggrieved countries might dispute the executions is to query whether exile was considered.