Sunday, December 26, 2004

Isn't God great???

Given that it's the holiday season, a season of giving and generosity and genuflecting (some before Mammon and others before that holy heartthrob J.C.), I can't help but think about this tragedy in terms of religion. I appreciate peoples' religiosity. I appreciate that they want to believe that God has the ability to affect their lives. But who wants a God that spends more time making sure that happy coincidences happen than he does preventing mindnumbing, heartbreaking tragedy? When more than 7,000 people die in tidal waves in Southeast Asia, it's hard to imagine that all that suffering is part of God's plan. And if it is, God needs a new plan, or we need a new God.

I mean, what are the options? Let's take an argument by cases. Let's say that God is omnipotent, and so had the power to prevent the tragedy. In the case that He allowed that tragedy to happen, and if we accept the humanity of those people that died, then He allowed, or even sanctioned, vast amounts of suffering. If we say that, no, those people are not quite human--as pawns in God's plan they didn't feel any pain and are rewarded in heaven, or something, then we do violence to the very concept of humanity and make charity and generosity and aid work all seem like one giant charade, since those people we're helping are not really human anyway. So if God is omnipotent, then either He is not benificent or some people are not human. If God is not omnipotent, then He is not really God at all. See the dilemma?

I guess the point of attack for Christians, and others who believe in a benificent, omnipotent God, is around that point of what we say about people hurt in natural disasters. Even if we argue that somehow man's free will lies outside the bounds of God's power, but we leave the natural world under his control, then we still have earthquakes and hurricanes and vast tornadoes to explain. So God does have some control over who dies and who lives, and over the magnitude of human suffering. (And, if you figure that God can control the weather, you'd think he would've had some choice lightning bolts for Hitler, the Khmer Rouge, Stalin, Charles Manson, so there's still that to answer.) So what do we say about Him and His disasters?

I'm comfortable with a God-as-creator concept, but not one that makes God some benificent ruler. I mean, if He is trying to be one, He is the George W. Bush of deities. And if God really is up there, poo-pooing everything I say, unfathomable and unapproachable, then I'm sure He can find it in His infinite good-will to forgive my wavering belief. I work hard to live a life that I think He would approve, though not for His sake, but for the sake of my fellow man and woman.

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Home, and wondering about the state of the world

Well, I never did make it to Ireland. A horribly sad story if you ever want to hear it. But for now, some thoughts about recent events.

Take the news that the world's largest gold producer knew that it was pumping tons of mercury into the Indonesian air.
Coming not too long after the anniversary of the Bhopal disaster, it only goes to show how ineffectual environmental regulations are in many places of the world, and what a farce the idea of corporate responsibility really is. Conservatives like to bandy about the idea that we can trust corporations to obey environmental standards without regulation. I think not, and if Bhopal and this newest case don't prove it, I'm not sure what does. The public can effectively pressure large corporations that have a brand name, like Nike, by boycotting their goods. But how do you boycott a chemical company whose goods are ingredients in a thousand products, or a gold producer who doesn't put a swoosh on the rings or bracelets you buy? In these cases, we need government to exert the pressure that we can't because we can't identify or effectively boycott the bad guys. I'd like some conservative to tell me how the public can more efficiently watch over corporations than the government, given that corporations will never be able to watch over themselves.

This newest thing also means that, since buying diamonds is kinda questionable given, well, Africa, it's hard to find jewelry that doesn't have a morally questionable origin. In fact, I'm beginning to think that it's hard to justify buying jewels at all . . . but I'll be the first to admit that's a bit radical. I, for the life of me, can't think of a really great reason why there should not be a huge luxury tax. Other than that a lot of new technology gets tried out in high end goods first, then works its way down to us schmos without the yachts and first generation plasma TVs. But it seems that a smart luxury tax could find a way around that. Why not tax the hell out of luxuries?

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Global rebalancing

Watching global rebalancing at work is kinda like watching a really drunk person walk a straight line. She might successfully walk the line, or she might break something. Stephen Roach has become a bit more bullish in his prognosis, but notes that we're still not out of the fire. No surprises there, I guess. I didn't see anything in there about Opec reducing its dollar exposure. If Opec eventually moves to oil priced against a mix of currencies, rather than just the dollar, that will put a whole new spin on the drop in price of the dollar, exacerbating inflationary pressures in the United States. However, no dramatic Opec rebalancing is likely to happen in the near term.

Cobbling the Financial Times report together with yesterday's post about leaks from the Pentagon and CIA should provide a thorough critique of President Bush's "war on terror" foreign policy. The "war against terror" has:
  1. Contributed to the negative impressions of Muslims across the world and helped spawn transnational, anti-American movements of Muslims, both moderates and radicals.
  2. Failed to stop terrorist movements and, indeed, made Muslims more receptive to radicals' demands.
  3. Intensified the anger of activists working to overthrow secular and, indeed, oppressive Middle Eastern regimes to be replaced with not necessarily democratic governments that will almost certainly be less willing to accede to American demands.
  4. Driven oil producers and their financers, for fear of having assets frozen by the American government, to further reduce exposure to the dollar and move more quickly to a different pricing scheme (read: drop demand for dollar, accelerate depreciation and inflation, force the Fed's hand in raising interest rates?)
So, who knew it could possibly fail so spectacularly on so many fronts? Honestly, when the president of Pakistan—the undemocratic president of Pakistan—points out that the US is counter-productively heavy-handed, you have a serious, serious problem (that was in that interview yesterday).

And another thing. When the government announces plans to borrow $1 trillion more dollars to replace the transmission in a Social Security system that needs a brake job, how are foreign creditors going to react? And why isn't anyone bringing this up? A lot? Isn't it just good policy to deal with the Social Security's problems in a couple of years when we'll have the means to do it? As Paul Krugman points out, we're facing a shortfall of 19% of promised benefits. That's doable. What is not doable is borrowing a $1 trillion when people are worried about lending us money as it is! If there's a better modern example of ideology trumping good policy in the US . . . it probably happened under this administration, but I'm too shocked by this one to think of it. It's like giving that drunk friend a shot of tequilla while she's trying to walk a straight line. And then pushing her.

UPDATE: Larger than expected trade deficit. Ummm. Rebalancing? Huh? Is this "steady" rebalancing then? Shouldn't Americans be buying less? I'm going to Ireland tomorrow. Where they use the Euro. Buggers.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

So you think you're paying for an education . . .

Wrong. You're paying for the right to tell everyone you got an education, and then flash the fancy diploma in her face to prove it. Or at least that's one way to look at it. Most of what follows is taken from a lecture on game theory and signalling by Ben Polak, an Economics professor here at Yale. I'll just condense it a bit.

So, imagine a world where there are two types of workers, good workers and bad workers. The good workers are more productive than the bad workers. Employers have no obvious way of telling good workers and bad workers; there is no obvious "good worker trait." If employers know that a worker is good, they will offer her more money than a worker they know to be bad, since those workers will also produce more for their employers, and their services will be demanded more heavily than those of bad workers. In this world, there then must be some way for workers to signal employers that they are in fact the good ones.

In this scenario, then, the educational system provides a nifty way for workers to signal that they are in fact good workers. The example that Professor Polak offered was working to get an MBA. Good workers will have a higher payoff from achieving an MBA and getting paid as a good worker than a bad worker would have from achieving an MBA and getting paid as a good worker, since good workers actually face lower costs from doing all the extra MBA work because they're more productive. If you make getting an MBA hard enough, then getting one will be an effective signal that someone is a good worker—it's a signal that requires a cost to give, a much higher cost than a worker saying in an interviewer, "Oh yes, I'm a good worker." Furthermore, it's a cost that, since it's tied to one's ability to do work, actually varies according to whether or not a worker is good, so it's a very effective, reliable signal.

The same principle is easily extended to college degrees. And then to what grades you get while achieving said college degree. If you get better grades, you signal that you're a better worker, and you have the good grades to prove it. Getting good grades is probably not proof that you "learn" better than somebody else, but it may show that you're more reliable, good at meeting deadlines, goal-oriented—all things that an employer wants to see.

Obviously, problems with this explanation of why the educational system does what it does abound, specifically that learning becomes secondary to signalling. And there's also the fact that getting an education is not neccessarily due one's good worker-ness; after all, people getting better educations these days are as often signalling their whiteness, richness, suburbanness, and good parented-ness as they are their good worker-ness. Since I should be writing a final paper right now, I probably fall into that last category there.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Before you go to sleep, take a leak

Remember in my earlier post when I said something like, "Oh if Bush were to delay elections, he'll lose all political momentum?" Well it seems as though, if the press does its job (yes that is a momentous, awe-inspiring "if"), Bush may well find his political capital depreciating almost as quickly as the dollar, regardless of Iraqi elections. Two recently leaked reports, one from the CIA (not surprsingly, since they're like a sieve), and one from the Pentagon are both very critical of the Bush administration and offer bleak prognoses for the future.

The leaked CIA report is an assesment of Iraq. Apparently, nothing's really going as planned. No surprises here. Notable in the Times article, though, is this little quote:

It was not clear how the White House was responding to the station chief's cable. In recent months, some Republicans, including Senator John McCain of Arizona, have accused the agency of seeking to undermine President Bush by disclosing intelligence reports whose conclusions contradict the administration or its policies.

It strikes me as interesting that McCain is characterized as criticizing the CIA for disclosing negative reports. Whether or not he has been criticizing their disclosure or their existence is an issue I am not nearly well enough informed to speak to, but if it is as the article says, then there's something wrong. Why critize an organization for disclosing the truth? If we can't trust our elected officials to tell us the truth (you know, the ones who are supposedly "accountable"), then I'd hope that someone is. It's really the height of patriotism. McCain should be all about the patriotism and the flag waving and fun things like truth. After all, I don't hear him complaining about people leaking damaging Grand Jury testimony that tarnishes Barry Bonds' image. Or maybe his bonds with Bush are closer than his with Barry. Or something.

But the really interesting stuff is in the Pentagon report. It's a meta-criticism of the entire philosophy of Bush's war on terror. Funny how close the report sounds to what the president of Pakistan said in an interview with the BBC. Since I don't know how much longer the link to the coverage will be workable, I won't put it here, but Musharraf argues that American policies have left the world less safe. And the Pentagon report doesn't come out and say it, but noting that we've convinced nearly every Muslim in the world that we can't be trusted is not far away.

Alright, so if the press does its job, then President Bush should have a lot of tough questions to answer. Can we please stop talking about the bogus "values" question long enough to discuss something substantive? Can the press now please stop feeling completely beholden to the administration? He's a lame duck! Or he will be quite shortly, even shorter if we all start asking the tough questions we deserve answers to.

I wanted this blog to be very, very deep. That takes far too much energy from day to day. Especially when I have to think deeply about everything else. But occasionally, expect this puddle to turn into a, um, deeper puddle.

Monday, December 06, 2004

Iraqi elections, Civil War, Merry Christmas!

So I haven't posted in quite some time. I could blame it on school, but that would be hooey, so I won't. I have no excuse.

But on to the really important point. Check out this story in the New York Times Week In Review that has everyone talking.

All my fears about civil war in Iraq seem to be coming to fruition. It didn't take a visionary to see it coming. The United States essentially allied itself with Kurds and Shiites, a sure-fire way to alienate the Sunnis. Not only that, but everytime you read "Iraqi forces," especially in the north of the country, you can replace that with "Kurdish forces." In any case, the article makes a great argument for why elections can't happen on January 30th. No election in which Sunni parties don't show will ever be legitimate.

So the Big Question becomes, can the Bush administration move to delay elections? The answer, I think, is "No." Not if it expects to have political capital to spend on its crazy domestic agenda (not "crazy" in the "crazy good" sense). Americans are itching to get our troops out of Iraq, while the Pentagon continues to send them in (it's always a few months too late with them). Meanwhile, 8 soldiers are suing the Pentagon to get home.

We have soldiers suing to leave, an American populace frustrated with a lack of progress, and a President with an extremely controversial domestic policy agenda in the pipes ("mandate" or no, there's no way you're going to reform Social Security without it being controversial, especially when you plan to increase a dangerously swollen deficit to do it). And the President is already feuding with his Republican Congress over the issue of the intelligence bill. If Bush pushes to delay elections in Iraq--the only chance they have at legitimacy--he will drive questions about the competency of the occupation into overdrive and create a political shitstorm that will clog the Congress, drain any momentum, and start Bush's lame duck Presidency very quickly.

So President Bush has a choice: Politically legitimate elections in Iraq or his own domestic agenda. Which do you think he will choose?

One final thing. To a crowing Matt Yglesias, I have only this to say. I love his blog, but his alma mater . . .