Thursday, January 31, 2008

Let them eat mud

It was lunchtime in one of Haiti's worst slums, and Charlene Dumas was eating mud. With food prices rising, Haiti's poorest can't afford even a daily plate of rice, and some take desperate measures to fill their bellies.

Financial Times: "the financiers are frightened".

Peak Everything: Gideon Rachman in the FT, on "The global battle for food, oil and water":
...But while the bankers grapple with the top end of the process – the movement of billions of dollars around the world financial system – the political analysts are increasingly preoccupied by the way globalisation is affecting people at the bottom of the pile.

The costs of food and energy are rising fast. The availability of water is also becoming an issue, from Australia to Africa. The struggle for these three basic commodities – food, energy and water – came up repeatedly in Davos. [...]
... Andrew Liveris, chairman of Dow Chemical told the Davos meeting that: “Water is ... the oil of the 21st century.

The food, energy and water problems all touch on each other. America’s pursuit of alternatives to oil has led to massive investment in biofuels made from maize. That in turn has cut the amount of maize being used for food production and so contributed to rising food prices. The production of biofuels is also very water-intensive. Meanwhile, increased demand for agricultural land to grow more food is leading to the clearing of forest in Brazil – which could worsen global warming – leading to further stress on the world’s water supplies.

The potential for political conflicts increases along with the rise in food, energy and water prices. [...]

The theme of this year’s World Economic Forum was meant to be “collaborative innovation”. It is difficult to think of anything less collaborative or innovative than a new era of resource wars.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

BAIER: Is being president confining?

BUSH: Yeah I guess so, I knew what I was getting in to and so I’m not frustrated in that sense. I can remember telling people that “well, when I decided to run that if I want, I’d never be able to go buy Berkely Power Worms again on my own.” And by that I meant that you know there’s just a certain freedom of movement that you don’t have and so I tell people, “yeah, there’s a bubble but life’s pretty comfortable inside the bubble.”
In 1980, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) created oppositional defiant disorder, defining it as "a pattern of negativistic, hostile and defiant behavior." The official symptoms of ODD include "often actively defies or refuses to comply with adult requests or rules" and "often argues with adults." While ODD-diagnosed young people are obnoxious with adults they don't respect, these kids can be a delight with adults they do respect; yet many of them are medicated with psychotropic drugs.
Throughout American history, both direct and indirect resistance to authority has been diseased. In an 1851 article in the New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal, Louisiana physician Samuel Cartwright reported his discovery of "drapetomania," the disease that caused slaves to flee captivity. Cartwright also reported his discovery of "dysaesthesia aethiopis," the disease that caused slaves to pay insufficient attention to the master's needs. Early versions of ODD and ADHD?

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Georgia understood that impeding the capital flow to subprime loans might raise the cost of borrowing for some state residents—those who, for one reason or another, had poor credit but could and would repay high-priced loans. But Georgia judged that this was more than balanced by protection for its most vulnerable from the scourge of predatory lending and the wrenching costs associated with overpayment and eventual foreclosure. New York, New Jersey, and New Mexico made the same judgment and within two years had enacted their own versions of laws exposing downstream owners of loans to fines if they bought predatory loans.

That's when the feds came in. Some of the biggest players in the secondary mortgage market are national banks, and the states' efforts to curb predatory lending clashed with the banks' fervent desire to keep the market in subprime loans rolling. And so the national banks turned to the Treasury Department's Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. The OCC is a somewhat conflicted agency: While its primary regulatory responsibility is ensuring the safety and soundness of the national bank system, almost its entire budget comes from fees it imposes on the banks—meaning that its funding depends on keeping them happy. It was unsurprising, then, that the OCC leapt to attention when the national banks asked it to pre-empt the Georgia-like subprime laws on the grounds that they conflicted with federal banking law.

While the banks' legal arguments were thin, the OCC issued regulations in early 2004 nullifying the state laws as they applied to national banks. In part, the OCC reasoned that the states just got it wrong: As the then-comptroller explained in a speech to the Federalist Society, "We know that it's possible to deal effectively with predatory lending without putting impediments in the way of those who provide access to legitimate subprime credit." With the state laws nullified, national banks were free to engage in the sharp practices the states were hoping to stamp out. (Indeed, Georgia scuttled its law because it didn't want to give national banks a competitive advantage over its state institutions.) Facing intense pressure from subprime lenders and Wall Street, and left without a real chance of holding investors responsible for purchasing ill-advised loans, state legislatures gave up.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

When I was seventeen, I was preparing myself for my compulsory IDF service. Being a well-built teenager fuelled with Zionist spirit and soaked in self-righteousness, I was due to join an air force special rescuing unit. But then the unexpected happened. On an especially late night Jazz program, I heard Bird (Charlie Parker) with Strings.

I was knocked down. It was by far more organic, poetic, sentimental and yet wilder than anything I had ever heard before. My father used to listen to Bennie Goodman and Artie Shaw, these two were entertaining, they could play the clarinet, but Bird was a different story altogether. He was a fierce libidinal extravaganza of wit and energy. The morning after, I decided to skip school, I rushed to “Piccadilly Record”, Jerusalem’s No 1 music shop. I found the jazz section and bought every bebop album they had on the shelves (probably two albums). On the bus, on the way home, I realized that Bird was actually a Black man. It didn’t take me by complete surprise, but it was kind of a revelation, in my world, it was only Jews who were associated with anything good. Bird was a beginning of a journey.

At the time, like my peers, I was pretty convinced that Jews were indeed the chosen people. My generation was raised on the Six Day War magical victory, we were totally sure of ourselves. Since we were secular, we associated every success with our omnipotent qualities. We didn’t believe in divine intervention, we believed in ourselves. We believed that our might is brewed in our resurrected Hebraic soul and flesh. The Palestinians, on their part, were serving us obediently and it didn’t seem at the time as if this was ever going to change. They didn’t show any real signs of collective resistance. The sporadic so-called “terror” attacks made us feel righteous, it filled us with some eagerness to get revenge. But somehow within this extravaganza of omnipotence, to my great surprise, I learned to realize that the people who exited me the most were actually a bunch of Black Americans. People who have nothing to do with the Zionist miracle. People that had nothing to do with my own chauvinist exclusive tribe.

By military Keynesianism, I mean the mistaken belief that public policies focused on frequent wars, huge expenditures on weapons and munitions, and large standing armies can indefinitely sustain a wealthy capitalist economy. The opposite is actually true.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Friday, January 18, 2008

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Mr. Sepi did not like to venture outside too late. But, plagued by nightmares about an Iraqi civilian killed by his unit, he often needed alcohol to fall asleep. And so it was that night, when, seized by a gut feeling of lurking danger, he slid a trench coat over his slight frame — and tucked an assault rifle inside it.

Matthew knew he shouldn’t be taking his AK-47 to the 7-Eleven,” Detective Laura Andersen said, “but he was scared to death in that neighborhood, he was military trained and, in his mind, he needed the weapon to protect himself.”
Far, far more important than the size of the sample, however, is the degree to which the overall sample is truly random, that is, trule representative of the population sampled and here is where the first of many serious questions about the NEJM effort arise. As the authors themselves admit, they did not visit a significant proportion of the original designated clusters: "Of the 1086 originally selected clusters, 115 (10.6%) were not visited because of problems with security," meaning they were inconveniently situated in Anbar province, Baghdad, and two other areas that were dangerous to visit, (especially for Iraqi government employees from a Shia-controlled ministry.) While such reluctance is understandable--one of those involved was indeed killed during the survey--it also meant that areas with very high death tolls were excluded from the survey.

To fill the gap, the surveyors reached for the numbers advanced by the Iraqi Body Count, (IBC) a U.K. based entity that relies entirely on newspaper reports of Iraqi deaths to compile their figures. Due to IBC's policy of posting minimum and maximum figures, currently standing at 80,419 and 87,834, their numbers carry a misleading air of scientific precision. As the group itself readily concedes, the estimate must be incomplete, since it omits deaths that do not make it into the papers, a number that is likely to be high in a society as violently chaotic as today's Baghdad, and higher still outside Baghdad where it is even harder for journalists to operate.

Nevertheless, the NEJM study happily adopted a formula in which they compared the ratio between their figures from a province they did visit to the IBC number for that province, and then used that ratio to adjust their own figures for places they did not dare go. Interestingly, the last line of the table on page 8 of the Supplementary Appendix to the report, "adjustment for missing clusters using IBC data," reveals that in using the Body Count's dubious figures to fill the holes in their Baghdad data, the formula they employ actually revises downward the rate of violent deaths on what they label "low mortality provinces."

Friday, January 04, 2008

I used to claim that the world would end not with a great book, but with a wonderful advertisement. - André Breton