Tuesday, February 15, 2011

An interlude

Just a reminder that the people who brought us to war in Iraq are absolute monsters.
The defector who convinced the White House that Iraq had a secret biological weapons programme has admitted for the first time that he lied about his story, then watched in shock as it was used to justify the war....
"Believe me, there was no other way to bring about freedom to Iraq. There were no other possibilities."
I do so hope that interview was conducted after Friday morning's announcement from Cairo.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

China's changing frontier?

(Holy hell, new content on the blog! What's it been, like a decade?)

Two data points from the last week or so. First, this long article in Tehelka about China's military moves along India's northern frontiers (basically, on either side of Nepal and Bhutan.) The Chinese have massively strengthened their forces along the border, presumably (the article argues) to force a change in the status of the line of control -- changing de facto borders with India in to de jure ones. Also, the article argues that China might try to actually take new territory to secure Tibet once and for all.

Secondly, the news today that China may be singalling to the US and other regional allies that it's about had it with this North Korean bullshit. From the Guardian:
"Citing private conversations during previous sessions of the six-party talks , Chun claimed [the two high-level officials] believed Korea should be unified under ROK [South Korea] control," Stephens reported.

"The two officials, Chun said, were ready to 'face the new reality' that the DPRK [North Korea] now had little value to China as a buffer state – a view that, since North Korea's first nuclear test in 2006, had reportedly gained traction among senior PRC [People's Republic of China] leaders. Chun argued that in the event of a North Korean collapse, China would clearly 'not welcome' any US military presence north of the DMZ [demilitarised zone]. Again citing his conversations with [the officials], Chun said the PRC would be comfortable with a reunified Korea controlled by Seoul and anchored to the US in a 'benign alliance' – as long as Korea was not hostile towards China.
Now, this is all effectively third-hand information: what a South Korean envoy told a US diplomat he'd heard from two Chinese envoys. Still, it's plausible and actually makes sense: at this point, China would probably profit substantially from even a semi-open relationship with a united Korea, as opposed to the status quo.

But what interests me is the strategic shift both pieces seem to indicate. North Korea is really the last major source of headaches for that part of China's world, and really the only one in the near future where "Americans in a shooting war" is at all a likely possibility. A united Korea would eliminate an ongoing political headache, a security headache, and open up an economic opportunity for the Chinese. This is all part of modestly successful history of China calming down relations with Japan and even Taiwan--there's not a lot left to fight over in the North Pacific.

Meanwhile, if the Tehelka article is to be believed, Beijing is basically preparing for a future of outright competition, if not hostility, with India. It's a relatively straightforward strategic shift from China worrying about it's eastern borders and conflict with the US and its allies, to worrying about India.

Of course, the idea of a major power war between the two countries is terrifying so this isn't just academic interest. The idea that China and India are going to replay the Franco-German relationship of the early half of the 20th century feels a bit more plausible every year...

Monday, November 08, 2010

Let's not get ahead of ourselves here!

The title of an academic paper: “Financial Economists, Financial Interests and Dark Corners of the Meltdown: It’s Time to set Ethical Standards for the Economics Profession”

Yes, after almost 250 years since Adam Smith's "Wealth of Nations" and 140 years since "Das Kapital", it might just be time to set some ethical standards for economics. Or maybe that might have been a century ago, it's so hard to tell.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

E-voting without worrying

There are some TED talks that are simply impossible to not finish once you start them, where the speaker is so engrossing that when the video ends you feel like your first girlfriend just dumped you. This is not one of those. In fact, it's pretty dull.

But it's important! And interesting, despite the terrible speaker! So watch!

It's 2010, your future is here (sorta)

Daily dose of US Supreme Court humour

So the state of California is defending an asinine law before the US Supreme court that would allow the state to ban violent videogames. Via Geekology, it appears the deliberations are not going well for the state. Some excerpts from the transcript:

JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: I don't think; is that answering Justice Kagan's question? One of the studies, the Anderson study, says that the effect of violence is the same for a Bugs Bunny episode as it is for a violent video. So can the legislature now, because it has that study, say we can outlaw Bugs Bunny?...

MR. MORAZZINI: Justice Sotomayor, cartoons do not depart from the established norms to a level of violence to which children have been historically exposed to. We believe the level of violence in these video games-

JUSTICE SCALIA: That same argument could have been made when movies first came out. They could have said, oh, we've had violence in Grimm's fairy tales, but we've never had it live on the screen. I mean, every time there's a new technology, you can make that argument.
Bonus sensibility from Justice Scalia (there's a sentence I don't use often):
JUSTICE SCALIA: I'm not concerned about the jury judging. I'm concerned about the producer of the games who has to know what he has to do in order to comply with the law. And you are telling me, well a jury can -- of course a jury can make up its mind, I'm sure. But a law that has criminal penalties has to be clear. And how is the manufacturer to know whether a particular violent game is covered or not?

Does he convene his own jury and try it before -- you know, I really wouldn't know what to do as a manufacturer.
Of course, the same basic principle applies to the ever-expanding field of copyrights, but that's another topic...

Monday, October 25, 2010

And my history of prognostication continues to be somewhat less than 30% accurate

But hey, when you're wrong 70% of the time you're right 30% of the time, right?

Jesus, this is going to be a long four years.

Also, what Chet said.

Okay, drinking now.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Tab-clearing, Oct 18 2010

Boy, Europe and America's inability to make nice with Turkey is world-historical stupid.
“China must tax carbon”. Of course, once China does that we'll find another reason to do nothing.
I have, on occasion, spouted off about parents who seem to be terrified about the world outside their doors. Chalk this up to that.
Speaking of China, looks like the regime continues to rotate in new talent in an orderly manner.
Saudis tentatively modernizing gender roles.
Genes are left wing. (Basically, heredity explains close to nothing about real world outcomes. Environment explains much, much more.)
West Virginia coal country has enormous geothermal potential.

Will Robots take our jobs? Probably

A decent short piece in Good Magazine makes the argument that the middle class is basically doomed from a combination of automation and offshoring, with automation (and personal robotics in particular) posing a growing threat to the service jobs we've tried to insulate from offshoring:
Here’s the thing, though: The erosion of the middle class is a phenomenon that’s bigger than the Great Recession. Middle-range jobs have been getting scarcer since the late 1970s, and wages for the ones that are still around have remained stagnant.

In his report, Autor says that a leading explanation for the disappearance of the middle class is “ongoing automation and off-shoring of middle-skilled ‘routine’ tasks that were formerly performed primarily by workers with moderate education (a high school diploma but less than a four-year college degree).” Routine tasks, he explains, are ones that “can be carried out successfully by either a computer executing a program or, alternatively, by a comparatively less-educated worker in a developing country.”

The culprit, in other words, is technology. The hard truth—and you don’t see it addressed in news reports—is that the middle class is disappearing in large part because technology is rendering middle-class skills obsolete....

On the low end of the spectrum, we have physical jobs that we can’t automate yet (yard work, for example). On the high end of the spectrum, we have creative and cognitive jobs that we can’t automate yet (law and management, for example). But as technology advances, and it certainly will, more people are going to be elbowed out of the workforce.

We may be heading toward a future with plentiful high-end jobs and plentiful low-end jobs, and not much in the middle. What if only doctors, lawyers, engineers, and managers can live a decent life, buy a house or apartment, and pay for their children to get specialized degrees?
Early Warning had a good point about the recent news that Google has working robot cars: Google has (presumably accidentally) put 3.6 million jobs at risk. (A lot of people employed driving people or things from one place to another.)

Now, robot cars are pretty awesome and I sure hope I can afford a robot butler/chef/babysitter someday. But we're well past the point where glib assurances that technology would create more jobs than it destroyed will suffice.

At a certain point, we need to rethink the bargain we've made in society, and need to make sure there's enough middle-wage jobs out there. This presumes we need a wage policy, where instead of trying to stream high school students in to careers we think (maybe) will be income-stable for a decade or two, we instead adopt a more general, economy-wide principle that tries to push wages up (gasp!) even if bankers freak out about mild inflation at first.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

As it turns out, my first and only car was a Ford

This will probably be the only thing I write about Toronto's municipal elections in this space. We in this city are currently contemplating a race in which we've got the choice between Rob Ford, a right-wing hard conservative who would fit in nicely with the old Mike Harris crew; George Smitherman, a centre-rightist who worked in the McGuinty government; and Joe Pantalone, a long-time left-wing councillor who has more than paid his dues with the city's left.

Now, I have said over and over in this space that I don't really like strategic voting, for a variety of reasons--most fundamentally, because our votes belong to us as individuals and we have the right to do with them as we please without being made to feel shitty about it later.

That said, here's something I wrote about Democrats in the US who were feeling hurt by Clinton's defeat in 2008 and threatening to vote McCain:
There's a particular kind of American progressive that drives me nuts. They are, to put it bluntly, Nader voters from the year 2000. Or today, unrelenting Clinton supporters from the year 2008. People convinced that, if only their preferred candidate were in a position of power, things would be better. And, as a corrollary, that pointing out the reality of the American duopoly of party politics amounts to saying "you have to vote for Barack Obama."

Well, of course you don't have to. But Democrats -- especially Democrats! -- who spent the last 8 years blaming Ralph Nader and his vanity-quest/Republican-care-package for all that has come since have no reason doing anything at this point other than supporting Barack Obama, if they're at all interested in the consequences of more GOP governance....

If Obama and McCain are both likely to wage a war against some poor country in the middle of nowhere (historically, most postwar Presidents have) I want the one who's not going to go nuclear. If I can get the least-crazy person and they want national healthcare, then goody for us all. Supporting the least-bad option isn't a sacrifice, you whiny children, it's a moral imperative.
Mayor David Miller--who I'm a big fan of--has endorsed Pantalone, and Pantalone is currently polling in the 15% range. I will not be voting for him.

This won't be the first time I've voted for someone other than the NDP candidate in an election, and I suspect it won't be the last. But Miller and Pantalone both know that government matters, and Miller at least has proven that point with 7 years of governance that have changed Toronto for the better.

However the corollary to Miller's success, indeed to his career in politics, is that bad governance matters too. And sometimes elections don't give us the easy choice between good and bad candidates. In those cases, as I argued above, choosing the least bad option becomes the thing to do. And, to anticipate one common argument, I don't think it's enough to say the left on city council will stop Ford from passing his agenda, so it's safe to vote your conscience. That is precisely what the Hillary '08 voters said about Congress and Obama, and as disappointing as the last two years have been for some I don't think anyone wants to replay them with Vice-President Palin in office.

More than that, it devalues the real political power the Mayor has, and implicitly says that someone like Miller hasn't really mattered at all, something I don't think lefties actually believe.

Now, this is not a post saying "shut up and vote for Smitherman." If you simply can't fathom it, if Smitherman is simply repellent to you, then I can't in good conscience write that people need to vote for him.

That said, Pantalone isn't going to win. Period. This isn't guesswork or opinion, and it isn't that difficult. At this point he needs to triple his vote in 10 days against two substantially more well-known and frankly more likeable candidates. Throughout this campaign I've been struck at how nasty Pantalone has been. For weeks he's been unable to contain his clear frustration at not being competitive in this race. So he ends up looking less likeable than Rob Ford or George Smitherman, something that boggles the mind as in public debates they both look like they're trying really hard not to punch each other.

The mayoral race is the closest thing Canadian politics has to a presidential one--unlike Parliamentary politics, it's not the case that we can say "I voted for the MP who could win my riding" and leave it at that. The mayor's post gives us a simple binary choice: the guy who wins and everyone else. A vote for Pantalone is not going to do anything after election day except make the lefty voter feel good about themselves. But lefty, NDP-voting types really ought to understand that politics isn't about how we feel, it's about what we do.

Will I be happy with Mayor Smitherman? Probably not. In fact, I expect to disagree strongly with much of his choices. But he's not a terrible politician on the face of it: just about the only thing the McGuinty government has done that I remain enthusiastic about is the Green Energy and Economy Act, which is Smitherman's baby if it's anyones. Smitherman saved the Province from throwing more money down the nuclear rathole as Energy Minister, and he has my gratitude for that even if the McGuinty government seems to be heading back to it. (Smitherman continues to be dogged by the E-Health scandal while he was Health Minister, but it seems fair to say the nuclear decision saved the people of Ontario vastly more than E-Health ever cost them.)

So yeah, I'll be voting for the lesser evil candidate for mayor on the 25th, and voting far more enthusiastically for my councillor who's up against some real nutters. If you can bear it and live in Toronto, I'd encourage you to as well.

As a small postscript, I will say that I don't plan on voting for the Liberal Party of Canada as long as Michael Ignatieff is the leader, for the same reasons that this isn't a "shut up and vote for Smitherman" post. I simply can't stomach the thought of rewarding a man who supported the Iraq War with my vote. This has been true since he came back to Canada, and will remain true as long as he's the leader of the Liberal Party. (Don't worry Liberals, you'll probably win my riding anyway.)