Thursday, March 24, 2005

Politics and the University

Columbia tends to live from controversy to controversy; it keeps things here interesting. But as much as it may seem like fun, it impresses on lowly college students the most trying national/global issues of our time: teaching assistants striking bring forth, to paraphrase Andrew Delbanco, the difficult intersection between a dying field (the humanities) and the incertainty of the job market--the battle between capitalism and academia; the question of racism railed Columbia a year ago; now we are facing a new controversy that has played itself out in newspaper articles, on tv, in editorials.

To those who may actually read this, and do not know what I speak of, I am referring to the controversy regarding "Academic Freedom" or the alleged curbing of the rights of students via intimidation and one sided presentation of topics. Columbia's President articulates this issue in a fantastic speech the other night; transcript can be found at this link .

The quesiton particular to Columbia is not Academic Freedom, but resides far closer to a discussion as contemporaneous as anything you could imagine: what is the role of academia vis-a-vis the Middle East. Embroiling the MEALAC department of Columbia into questioning its teaching has some pleasant and unpleasant aspects. It is good to know that people care enough from the outside to be guarantors of liberty. But whereas Students for Academic Freedom wear the hat of liberators, intuitively it feels like this is more of a facade than a reality.

What is the reality? What is the hope for harmony and peaceful coexistence? On both sides (Israeli and Arab) I feel an almost unambiguous no. It is the frightening position, the delicate construction that President Bollinger articulates, where you cannot win if you choose, and thus you relegate yourself to hanging from a cliff holding on as best you can before a nasty fall; there is no right thing to say without coming out as attacking a group, preferring a group to another.

Friends of mine come to me from schools far and away and ask me what is the deal with Columbia, why is it anti-semitic, why is it anti-zionist. It is a consuming case that not only challenges the integrity of my university, but that of all universities. What is the role of academia in politics? How do we escape from the political game of reciprical actions? Academia works as an ivory tower; a monastic place of inquisitive, quirky, bright minds trying to learn, trying to solve problems. Can it resolve itself to play in the dirty world of right and wrong? As ethics professors pronounce morality, the distinctly amoral aspect of the university is what has allowed it to prosper, I believe, as a champion of the whatever possible. The ever present legacy of the disputatio; knowing every side of an issue and arguing the death out of it is the basis of the University. Between universities and the free press, the great independence and objectivity of our country remains secure--until the evil head of politics enters into them, and then the hellish notion of 'I don't know' becomes all too pervasive. Because I don't know what our country would look like once we make academics too political. From the outset, it just seems scary. Perhaps I am wrong, but then again, at this moment all I feel is the notion of freedom slowly creeping away from the university, as its autonomy is it play in the court of political opinions.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Language Barrier

I got to spend some time in London the is past week. Now: going on the trip in the first place made me exceptionally poor, so I became a fantastic budget traveler, taking on London while only spending about $250 over 6 days. But in doing this I got to spend most of my time walking around London, jumping into small eateries, seeing how they develop their service industry as compared to us.

The first thing I realized is how easy it was to communicate no matter what language you spoke. Blame it on the EU because this place comfortably caters to French, Spanish, German, Italian, Portuguese and what have you. Then there are places here and there that speak chinese, japanese, hindi and more! Going into a store and seeing a rather small chinese woman trying to speak Spanish to a customer made me think about those barriers we have erected in the US against language. Being multilingual is such an advantage that few seem to take advantage of. Defaulting into English seems to be too easy, and when you see all these exclusionary 'nativists' promoting English as the only language it just makes you see how incredibly unattractive the US must be to foreign travelers. Oh wait! They already are familiar with English because outside of our exceptionalistic attitude other cultures do learn multiple tongues!

Is there a moral of the story? I don't know. Perhaps just ranting. But doesn't it seem odd that other places can be so open to different people, and America is so static? Far from the center of London you can find money exchange places, or at least the values listed on windows of banks. Here you barely see anything besides the sightseeing tour bus that passes by my window every few days.

It would be nice to see us jump into the 21st century. We'll see if things change.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Corruption in Iraq??? Gasp, gasp, triple-gasp!

Apparently, corruption is more and more of a problem in Iraq. In fact, according to Transparency International, Iraq is in danger of becoming "the biggest corruption scandal in history." Furthermore, the United States "has been a poor role model in how to keep corrupt processes at bay." Really? You mean, letting the target of an audit edit that audit for release to the United Nations isn't an example of good, transparent governance? No, I guess we haven't been a very good role model.

The silliest part of all this is we're going to try and put Paul Wolfowitz in charge of the World Bank. Here's a section from the BBC article about the Transparency International Report:

Companies found guilty of bribery should forfeit the relevant contract and should be prevented from bidding for similar work. Tendering processes should be open to public scrutiny and independent oversight.

The World Bank - which since last year has required all companies awarded large-scale projects under its control to sign an anti-bribery agreement - said the report highlighted issues of "deep concern".

"The diversion of funds from publicly financed projects represents an unacceptable tax on the poor," said World Bank president James Wolfensohn.

"In the construction sector, it represents a deplorable opportunity lost for the delivery of essential services and it undermines citizen trust in government."

Wolfowitz, the man that helped ensure Haliburton got a no-bid contract to do construction and supply work for the Pentagon and the Iraqi authorites, and has not cancelled that contract despite Haliburton's loss of millions of dollars, and further allowed Haliburton to edit its own audits, will be in charge of an organization that gives out hundreds of billions of dollars of contracts each year. Excellent. Now the World Bank can be a super-good role model for Iraq too!

Oh, so they're protecting SS???

Guess what! Greenspan, Bush, all those conservatives . . . they're trying to make sure the government can't spend your Social Security assets! Greenspan mentioned this in his testimony yesterday before the Senate Speical Committee On Aging (see last post). Greenspan said:

"The major attraction of personal accounts is that they can be constructed to be truly segregated from the unified budget, and therefore are more likely to induce the federal government to take those actions that would reduce public dis-saving."
So, personal accounts are designed to prevent government dis-saving. Except, hang on, creating private accounts would create trillions of dollars in new debt. I feel like I'm taking crazy pills! You know, there's a much cheaper way to ensure that the government doesn't dis-save by spending funds meant for Social Security—legislate the "lockbox" that should already exist! Make it law that Social Security funds cannot be spent on the general fund. That solution costs no money. No new trillions of dollars of debt. These people are either liars are idiots. Given how many times they use the "incompetence" defense, they're happy to be idiots. But no one is this stupid. So let's call them liars.

Greenspan the lackey

Greenspan bashing has become the trendy thing to do among liberals recently. And for good reason. He has contributed hugely to a regressive, hurtful transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich that began with his arguing for the raising of payroll taxes in the 80s, continued with the lowering of income taxes on the wealthy in 2001, and will come to fruition if Social Security is destroyed by the President's considered (but not yet proposed) "reforms."

In the face of huge budget deficits, Greenspan went before the Senate Special Committee on Aging and was forced to defend his endorsement of the tax cuts in 2001 and argued that he only made the same mistake that many budget-watchers were making—namely that huge surpluses were on the way. Given that Greenspan is the chief economic engineer in the country, this is a disingenuous effort to avoid responsibility. Greenspan knew full well the economic picture that the US faced, especially given his central role in shaping the economic future through the Federal Reserve's monetary policies. He simply ought to have known better than to expect budget surpluses forecast on the basis of current trends, which were certain to change given his own policies, to materialize.

Furthermore, Greenspan's support of tax cuts, without seeing the legislation itself, was irresponsible. Greenspan must have known that endorsing the concept of "tax cuts" would be a huge boon to Republican politicians eager to offer their core constituencies (the wealthiest Americans), deep tax cuts, regardless of whether or not they were responsible. Before the committee, Greenspan argued that he wanted tax cuts only if they contained "trigger" clauses that would force Congress to re-evaluate the tax cuts if the budget projections proved wrong. Well, the tax cuts did not include those triggers. And if Greenspan had wanted to emphasize concerns about poor budget projections, he should have emphasized those. For example, Greenspan could have said, "We must hold tax cuts until we are sure that promised surpluses will materialize." But he didn't. He provided a political blank check to irresponsible Republican law-makers. And since those tax cuts, when he has had opportunities to call for their repeal given that surpluses did not materialize, Greenspan has remained mum, or tacitly supportive of the tax cuts. Greenspan is a lackey of the Republican law-makers who are turning our fiscal picture into a portrait of irresponsibility. Congrats.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

Comfort women

Last year, I took my first Woman's Studies course at Yale. It was a simple introduction to the topic of feminist theory, analyzing issues through a feminist lens, and such fun stuff. One of the lectures told the story of "comfort women," captured by the Japanese army during WWII and placed in shacks where they were serially raped for years by Japanese troops who needed "comfort." The horror of that plight is unimaginable to me. Don't need to say too much more about that.

What does deserve some attention are the efforts of the Japanese government since their victims have come forward. The Japanese government didn't officially recognize them until 1992. The Japanese Supreme Court two years ago denied requests for compensation by 10 South Korean comfort women on the basis that they had filed their claims too long after the events took place. As far as I can tell, the only sensible reason to deny such claims because of the elapsed time between the claim and the event is to prevent false claims that cannot be verified. But in this case, that reasoning doesn't work. First, the chance of false claims in this case is extremely low given the shame associated with the victims of the Japanese army's rape program. Victims today tell of how their families shun them because of the shame they bring. And second, if claims are hard to verify, allow cases to be made in court, don't simply reject the cases at the outset. I'm no legal expert, but this attempt by the Japanese government to avoid real responsibility for the victims of their comfort women program is transparent and ludicrous.

I'm not sure how widely-known the story of the comfort women is in the United States. I didn't learn about it in my high school history books. I didn't learn about it until I took a course on women's issues. But the plight of the comfort women is not a feminist issue, it's not a women's issue. It's sickening what we'll sweep under the rug. Now, the victims are organizing a petition that they hope will have 1 million signatures. Here's to the Japanese government getting called out before the victims die and their pleas are buried with them. Imagine if these were Holocaust victims. Imagine that the German government didn't recognize the Holocaust until 1992. Imagine that they wouldn't publicly acknowledge culpability for what happened.

And now I'm going to help with my little brother's clown party.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

New look

So Fog Walking now has a new look. The change was made partly out of necessity, partly because change is good. For whatever reason, the old template wasn't updating, so new posts weren't showing up. That's annoying. The new template looks better and will hopefully not have the same problem. It's a bit of pre-spring cleaning, I guess. Enjoy!

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Of poppies

Okay, so the poppies. Specifically, Afghan poppies. Specifically, the fact that Afghan poppy production has trippled, and that it accounts for between 40-60% of the Afghan economy. And the fact that, at this point, Afghan poppy production is essentially world poppy production. All of these facts are relevant to understanding why the US State Department worries in a recent report that Afghanistan might be on the verge of becoming a narcotics state. The story of how this has come to be is familiar to most of us. Basically: Under the Taliban, not much poppy production; under the democracy that has been established since, lots and lots of it, thanks to the power of local warlords, an ineffective central state, and inadequate American troop presence. (Just to be clear, I mean inadequate to prevent drug production. Not that I believe that should be the top priority of American troops.)

The fact that the State Department worries that Afghanistan might be on its way to a narcotics state is, to me, kind of like saying that North Korea might be on its way to communism, or that the United Arab Emirates might be on its way to an oil economy. When 40-60% of your economy derives from the production of a single commodity—a single illicit commodity that the government would rather you not produce—you have a serious problem. You're not on your way to a serious problem, you're there. And more heroin in the market place is a serious problem for the world, not only for the future of Afghan democracy. Cheaper heroin means more heroin use, means more intravenous drug use, means more HIV trainsmission.

A number of political scientists argue that a country can't be called a democracy until it has survived two changes in power—two elections where the losing party concedes control of the country to the winning party. This is a sensible hurdle for countries struggling to be "democracies." After all, the exchange of power is the most difficult part of democracy. Until countries like Iraq and Afghanistan complete two exchanges, they won't be democracies, and crowing conservatives are premature. And, since Afghanistan is nearly a narcotics state, it's unlikely that its government will pass the test any time soon. Political struggles will be fuelled by drug money, warlords will continue to hold sway in some areas of the country, and they will be as well funded as the government.

Think about it like this. Let's say 50% of the country's GDP is in poppy production. And let's say that a shadow "government," an illicit power structure of warlords and gangsters, taxes that portion of the economy while the real government cannot. Let's futher assume that warlords and gangsters charge an exorbitant tax rate on the income of poppy farmers because . . . well because they're hearltess, un-democratically elected gangsters. It's easy to see the trouble that the Afghan government would have facing them. Though not as cohesive, the various regional warlords and gangsters would probably be better funded than the government. And their cohesion isn't necessarily a problem, since their geographic dispersion would force the government to spread their weak forces so thin, the walords don't have to coordinate themselves.

(Conservative response: "Don't hate on America! Don't hate on democracy!" Not that I can see a fat old white man yelling "don't hate on" anything, but you know, it would be funny.)

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Umbele Foundation

Some of you people have heard of the fantastic foundation started by Columbia Professor Xavier Sala-i-Martin. It aims to provide, particularly young women, incentive to go to school and not have to deal with the opportunity cost issue of staying at home or working. It has been proven in economic studies to increase productivity of the workforce; and by that extension increase growth. It follows a similar idea put forth by former Mexican President and current Yale Professor Ernesto Zedillo and his Progresa initiative. A fantastic idea that aims to support a continent that has been strife by political unrest, famine and epidemics. Whereas it cannot solve those deep problems, what it can do is look at this particular question of declining economies and perhaps do what many people say Capitalism does do: increase opportunity, increase prosperity.

In any case: we are having here in this neck of the woods a faculty auction to support the organization, and one of the options was a book that is yet to come out called The End of Poverty by reknowned Economist Jeffrey Sachs. The autographed copy of this yet to be released; I am going to get it before most people book; is now mine. As I have purchased it in the auction. Highly touted by people around, I hope it is as good as I have heard. I am extremely excited about it.

If I ever find a greater love for math and problem sets, I shall follow Mr. Sachs and to an extent Mr. Sala-i-Martin and go for a PhD in Sustainable Development. Understanding the nuance relationships between what man must do and what he can do. Helping this world, a few dollars at a time, a few thoughts at time. If only we would stop paralyzing ourselves with petty bickering over what some professor wrote in an editorial about Israel, or over legitimacy of some constitution.

He who is without sin may cast the first stone; oh that isn't a possibility? Then at the very least let us cast out a few dollars, a few ideas and try to make this place more agreeable to live in, instead of suffocating in a pool of antagonisms.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Democrats are a joke

. . . Or how the right learned to undermine the left.

I was thinking on the AirTrain over here (I'm sitting in JetBlue's terminal, comlete with wireless internet access) that the Republican strategy of constantly associating liberal causes with comedians, actors, singers, and entertainers is a powerful political one, and something of a role reversal. The way I came to this line of thinking is kinda funny. I saw a poster advertising contact lenses with a picture of that mousy, bespectacled Scooby Doo character without her glasses on, and I though of how much Janeane Garofalo looks like her. Then I thought about the show Scarborough country, and the fact that she appeared a few times as the liberal on their pannel.

Thinking about other panels I'd seen, I was amazed at how many times the Republican point of view has an old, authoritative-looking guy plugging it, and how many times the liberal side is taken by a young, well-dressed, metro guy, or by an entertainer. For conservative news channels and conservatives generally, this makes sense. It's hard to take an entertainer seriously, even if they're well-spoken, and often they're not. (No offense to Janeane Garofalo, but she's a better comedian.) Hammering home how out of touch liberal entertainers are trying to steal our country, conservatives do more than construct liberals out of touch. They're also constructing us as intellectual lightweights.

To me, that's certainly an ironic project. Though there are certainly conservative intellecturals, there's a reason that so many colleges and universities are liberal havens. (And despite what conservatives say, it's not because there's ideological discrimination.) Conservatives, I believe, self-select into fields that fit their worldview; they enter business, follow "greedy" money-making pursuits, and demand ever-lower taxes. Liberals also do a certain amount of self-selecting, and frankly I wish more of them would decide to practice their philosophies instead of thinking about them all the time. So perhaps conservatives are combatting the impression that liberalism is the "intellectual" or "thoughtful" position by cementing the image of the liberal entertainer in the public consciousness.

Of course, there used to be another side of liberalism—the activist side. And I say "used to" because, up until the emergence of the Deaniacs, it seemed that liberal activists had become non-facors in national politics, coopted by hopeless political causes, like Nader's failed runs. There used to be union activists, pro-labor activists, who fought for hard-nosed, classist political causes, that they identified with and that meant a lot to them. This side of the Democratic party, this activist liberalism, is all-too rarely seen. Students more and more are carrying that torch, but they don't hold the same weight as coal miners do. Like entertainers, it's too easy to portray students as idealistic lightweights. I guess that's what I meant by hard-nosed. Coal miners, factory workers, are hard to classify as lightweights. They are forces that conservatives, even conservative ideologues, have to at least seem to respect, lest they alienate Americans.

So I have to board soon. This isn't as well thought out and careful as it could be, or ought to be. Frazzled from travel and all that. About to be home for spring break. Maybe the rate and quality of blogging will pick up.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Looking ahead to summer

So my summer plans are solidifying nicely. I'll be staying here in New Haven, and doing a combination of the following three things:
  1. Running the Elmseed Enterprise Fund. Elmseed is, as far as I know, the only student-run micro-credit lender in the country. It's been up and running for more than four years now. Right now we have 9 long-time clients with 11 more awaiting certification. We've loaned out more than $25k to local New Haven entrepreneurs and have a repayment rate of over 85%. I run the client services department, which provides free business consulting and loan application writing help to our clients. Over the summer I'll be running the whole shebang, booking speakers, doing publicity and recruiting new clients, some fundraising, and running training sessions for our clients.
  2. Working as a research assistant to Professors Patrick Bayer and Fabian Lange here at economics department here at Yale. The project I'll be working on is about the location decisions of firms and workers, particularly firms that hire low-skilled workers and whether or not their location decisions are affected by a binding minimum wage. The reasoning goes like this: If wages are market-clearing, i.e. wages are set by the market, then firms that demand low-skilled labor will locate near its abundant sources. But if you introduce a binding minimum wage, firms might not employ as much low-skilled labor, not need as much of it, and so not see so much advantage in locating near its sources. This has grave implications for low-skilled workers, who are often in areas with poor infrastructure, might not own cars, and so might find it hard to travel to employers. And low-skilled workers in the areas where firms choose to locate are actually in high demand and low supply, and so can demand a higher-than-minimum wage. Thinking all of this over makes me a bit leery; is this the lead-in to an argument against the minimum wage? It will all depend on what the data show. The data set they have is massive, including every employer in California over 15 or so years. I'll be in charge of organizing all that junk into something usable. It'll take a long time, much more than the 160 hours I'll work over the summer. In fact, I'm going to start working on it in the next few weeks as the data comes in.
  3. Part-time job at the Beinecke Rare Book Library. The job is dull, for the most part, but it does involve working with, at least in passing, some pretty amazing stuff. Have you ever touched a 17th century doctorate from the university in Basel, Switzerland? Hah!
  4. McKenzie Leadership Summit. Still think about this one. It would be an all-expense paid weekend. Applications due at the end of March. Positives: Might set me up for a job at McKenzie after school. Negatives: Might set me up for a job at McKenzie after school. Obviously, I'm a bit ambivalent about consulting. It sounds like it might be really interesting. Game Theory certainly picqued my interest in business strategy.
So that's the summer plan. Hanging in the balance: My career plans. Will I like working with the economics data? Will it inspire me to apply to graduate school? Or will I like managing Elmseed so much that I choose to go the MBA route, with an eye on non-profit management?

In any case. Thought I'd let you all know what I'll be thinking/writing about in the summer months. Hopefully, it'll all provide me some interesting posts.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Democracy? What is it in the first place?

The notion of American proto-individualism (as I will call it for fun's sake) during the early years of the revolution seems to be what has led us down a rather interesting path towards this glorified notion of democracy, which has mixed itself so wonderfully with the thoughts of capitalism, or has it?

I pose this question rather rhetorically, of course, I do not think that this country is a democracy, as we ought to raise the word. If we go as far back to Plato he would call our system a Polity. A good constitution he would mention, where the essential crux of power is in the hands of what he called the middle-class; a pre-Marxian notion of the Bourgeois, perhaps? Not quite, but it is interesting to note that he did think there would be at least some kind of middle class capable of being the mean between the rich and the poor, while being (as he put it) frugal so as to not fall into unnecessary appetites.

What would he think of our culture now? One would have to ask. Although, perhaps he isn't the best person to ask, if we are to speak about cultural decay, yes decay. Why is America not a Democracy? Because it doesn't even know what the word means! After decades with this amorphous notion of democracy being touted in classrooms, we stand today less sure of what we are, and who we are than the founders who created the censitary republic back when. I argue this without arrogance, without contempt, but honestly. What does it mean to be in a democratic state; we think we know, we assume we know. We spout things like we have fought for freedom when we use it in thousands of ways; each time we contradict the other ways. Is freedom for all? Is freedom a right? A natural right? What limitations are on our freedom? Is religion the limit of freedom? Can freedom be limited without us throwing our words into a vaccum? Is it freedom of the individual or freedom of the commonwealth? Is there a common good that our nation cares about? Is freedom more important than economic wealth?

This country lost democracy the moment it stopped knowing what it was in the first place. Is democracy filled with fillibusters and private interests? Is democracy filled with million dollar campaigns that aim to shine the bright spots on people? What about our thousand person bureacracy, does freedom watch over the arbitrary actions of some civil servant writing a memo in Saudi Arabia?

For this country to truly be free, it must be free from its arrogance. It ought to relinquish these petty notions that we are right because we have always been right and start asking the bigger questions. If we don't then do we have the right to spout the words democracy and freedom with such ease? Lets get our priorities straight and stop bullshitting under some cover that we some how are democratic, and that there is not any corruption. Our nation is slowly beginning to uncover its darker sides: people are disenfranchised. We cannot even hold onto that as a notion of democracy; not everyone even has the right to vote. We neglect our poorest constituents, and we succumb to awkward prejudices that pit man against man, man against woman, class against class, race against race. We have so lost the ability to think clearly that we are fueling this cultural illusion to use Nietzsche's words, until we can't even tell the difference between the real world and the fake world. We hold ourselves to be stronger than our enemies, but if we only claim to know ourselves (and never take time to study our history, to ameliorate from our dirty past, and to push forth to redeem our past) we shall never have the right, nor the clarity to say we are a democracy and mean it. Because ignorance surely plays into an authoritarian's frame of mind.