“Soft despotism is a term coined by Alexis de Tocqueville describing the state into which a country overrun by "a network of small complicated rules" might degrade. Soft despotism is different from despotism (also called 'hard despotism') in the sense that it is not obvious to the people."

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Russians Never Change, US Presidents Do.

Anyone who follows this blog knows of my contempt for the way in which George W. Bush has diminished our country. Some presidencies have elevated the respect and power of America. I challenge anyone to identify a President that has done more to weaken the Great United States of America through sheer incompetence and dereliction of duty the George Bush, the lessor.

This article caught my attention and reminded me of a time the Russians tried to choke the Berliners from fuel in the winter of 1948. President Harry Truman was in a re-election campaign, presented with his lowest approval rating and the threat of World War III with the Soviet Union over a developing situation in Berlin. It started in the previous summer when The Soviets then cut all surface traffic to West Berlin on June 27.

American ambassador to Britain, John Winnant, stated the accepted Western view when he said that he believed "that the right to be in Berlin carried with it the right of access." The Soviets, however, did not agree. Shipments by rail and the autobahn came to a halt. A desperate Berlin, faced with starvation and in need of vital supplies, looked to the West for help.

The order to begin supplying West Berlin by air was approved later by U.S. General Lucius Clay on June 27. President Truman, wishing to avoid war or a humiliating retreat, supported the air campaign, against many advisors wishes.

Surviving a normally harsh German winter, the airlift carried over two million tons of supplies in 270,000 flights. C47s were used to carry coal.

The blockade of Berlin was finally lifted by the Soviets on May 12, 1949. Berlin became a symbol of the United States resolve to stand up to the Soviet threat without being forced into a direct conflict.

Does anyone believe that the Russians take George W. Bush seriously enough and that he could achieve anything of the same magnitude?

Russia prepares to halt gas supplies to Ukraine
Wed Dec 31, 2008 10:10pm GMT

By Vladimir Soldatkin and Guy Faulconbridge

MOSCOW/KIEV, Jan 1 (Reuters) -
Russia was preparing to turn off gas deliveries to neighbouring Ukraine on Thursday, raising the spectre of disruptions to European Union supplies.

European states are anxious to avoid a repeat of what happened in January 2006 when, during a similar row, Moscow cut off supplies to Ukraine, causing a brief fall in gas supplies passing through Ukraine on the way to the rest of Europe.

Moscow says it will honour its contracts to supply European customers with gas, and these have enough reserves to manage without Russian supplies for days, but not weeks.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko also gave assurances to European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso that there would be no disruptions to supplies to the EU, the European Commission said in a brief statement.

Pipelines that cross Ukraine carry about one-fifth of the EU's gas needs. A new cut-off could tarnish Russia's reputation as a reliable energy supplier and further undermine Ukraine's crisis-battered economy.

Day 5 - In Gaza, Israel says "Not today, thanks."

Another wonderful day in the neighborhood.
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Israeli leaders decided to reject an immediate 48-hour pause in fighting and push ahead with the devastating air offensive against Hamas, sending jets and assault helicopters to pound targets in the Gaza Strip for a fifth day Wednesday.

Israel is facing growing international pressure to halt the assault and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert discussed a cease-fire proposal — floated by France's foreign minister — with his foreign and defense ministers overnight. The meeting ended with a decision to continue operations, government officials said, and a top forum of Cabinet ministers entrusted with security matters will discuss the continued offensive Wednesday.
Egypt is caught up in the Arab backlash.

CAIRO, Egypt — The Israeli bombing campaign in the Gaza Strip has unleashed outrage across the Middle East — but the anger is being vented as much against Egypt as it is at Israel.

Protesters have attacked Egyptian embassies, accusing Cairo of helping Israel's longtime blockade of the territory and even giving a green light for the offensive — a sign of the gulf between an Arab public and some U.S.-allied governments that dislike Gaza's Hamas rulers.

Demonstrators broke into the Egyptian consulate in the Yemeni city of Aden on Tuesday, trashing the interior, throwing computers out windows and burning the Egyptian flag on the roof. More than 500 protesters massed outside Egypt's embassy in Syria, as others did days earlier in Lebanon.

During a demonstration in the Lebanese city of Sidon this week, people chanted slogans denouncing Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as "a pig" and a "collaborator" with Israel.

The fault lines

But the clamor over Gaza has underlined an increasing divide in the Middle East that pits pro-Western countries like Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia against Syria and Iran and their allied militant groups, Hamas and Hezbollah.

In an unusually vocal criticism for an Egyptian politician, Abdullah Kamal, a member of Egypt's ruling party, denounced Hamas on Monday as a pawn of Iran, saying Iran and Syria are trying to make "Iran as the leader of the region through its militias, whether Hezbollah or Hamas."

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

We had to, you know, do it.

Good Old Joe Stalin

As the Bush Administration attempts to rehabilitate itself in the last few days of its existence, Vladimir Putin has in his vainglorious KGB style, been corrupting truth for ten years. The Russians, who have never met a dictator or despot they could not adore are outdoing themselves in a remarkable flight to the dark side but really, Joseph Fucking Stalin?

Reagan was right when he called them the Evil Empire. Soviets re-packaged as Russians, are still dangerous, still self-destructive and still toxic to their neighbors.

This story confirms my long held suspicions. The Cold War never ended, it paused. No wars ever end without vanquish and triumphalism. The KGB defector, Igor Gouzenko said it best in "The Fall of Titan", "the only thing a communist understands is a cocked gun up to his head."


The sinister resurrection of Stalin


The Soviet leader’s triumphant imperialism is the key to his rehabilitation under Putin, believes Anne Applebaum.

Who is the greatest Russian of all time? In the unlikely event that you answered “Stalin”, you would be in good company. One of the 20th century’s most horrific dictators has just come third in an opinion poll conducted by a Russian television station. Some 50 million people are said to have voted.

Myself, I have some doubts about the veracity of this poll, particularly given that the television station in question is state-owned, and therefore manipulated by the Kremlin. Also, first place went to Alexander Nevsky, a medieval prince who defeated German invaders – and an ideal symbol for the Putinist regime, which prides itself on its defiance of the West. Second place went to Piotr Stolypin, a turn-of-the-century economic reformer who, among other things, gave his name to the cattle cars (Stolypinki) in which prisoners were transported to Siberia – another excellent symbol for the “reformer with an iron fist” label to which both Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev aspire.

Both seem too good to be true; neither had ever before seemed like candidates for such an august title. Had the poll been completely free, I expect Stalin would have come in first place. Why wouldn’t he? After all, the government, media and teaching professions in Russia have spent a good chunk of the past decade trying to rehabilitate him – and not by accident.

All nations politicise history to some extent, of course. But in Russia, the tradition of falsification and manipulation of the past is deeper and more profound than almost anywhere else. In its heyday, the KGB retouched photographs to remove discredited comrades, changed history books to put other comrades in places where they had not been, monitored and tormented professional historians. Russia’s current leaders are their descendants, sometimes literally.

But even those who are not the children of KGB officers were often raised and trained inside the culture of the KGB – an organisation that believed that history was not neutral but rather something to be used, cynically, in the battle for power. In Putinist Russia, events are present in textbooks, or absent from official culture, because someone has taken a conscious decision that it should be so.

And, clearly, a decision has been made about Stalin. In a recently released, officially sanctioned Russian history textbook, in public celebrations and official speeches, the attitude towards him runs something like this: “Mistakes were made… errors were committed… but great things were achieved. And it was all worth it.”

This public portrayal of Stalin is highly selective. The many, many millions who died in the Gulag, in mass deportations or in mass murders are mentioned only as a kind of aside. Stalin’s purges of his closest colleagues and revolutionary comrades are given short shrift. The terror that made people afraid to speak their minds openly, that made children turn their parents in to the police, that stunted families and friendships, is absent from most contemporary accounts. Even Stalin’s programmes of industrialisation and agricultural collectivisation – which modernised the country at enormous cost to the population, the environment, and Russia’s long-term economic health – are not dwelled upon.

Instead, it is Stalin’s wartime leadership that is widely celebrated, and in particular his moment of imperial triumph in 1945, when Soviet-style communism was imposed on Russia’s western neighbours. In that year, Eastern Europe became a Russian colony and, more to the point, Stalin negotiated as an equal with Roosevelt and Churchill.

Annually, Russia’s May celebrations of the anniversary of victory in 1945 grow more elaborate. Last year, they included several thousand Russian soldiers dressed in Soviet uniforms, waving the Soviet flag and singing Soviet songs. Major pieces of weaponry were paraded across Red Square, just like in the old days, to enormous applause.

Books about the war have also now become a major publishing phenomenon in a country that, up until a few years ago, hardly published any popular history at all. Most major bookstores now have a war section, often featuring books like one I picked up in Moscow a few months ago. Entitled We Defeated Berlin and Frightened New York, it is the memoir of a pilot who describes the joy of bombing raids and revels in Russia’s long-lost power to frighten others.

Even more significant is the role that the celebration of the Soviet Union’s imperial zenith now plays in a larger narrative about recent Russian history, namely the story of the 1980s and the 1990s. Famously, Putin once said that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the “biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”, presumably larger than either world war. He, along with the Russian media and the current Russian president who echo him, now considers the more open discussion of the Stalinist past that took place during Gorbachev’s glasnost to have been a distraction, a moment of national weakness. More to the point, they openly attribute the economic hardships of the 1990s not to decades of communist neglect and widespread theft, but to deliberate Western meddling, Western-style democracy and Western-style capitalism.

In fact, this argument now lies at the heart of the current Russian leadership’s popular legitimacy. Summed up, it goes something like this: communism was stable and safe; post-communism was a disaster. Putinism, within which Medvedev fits naturally, represents a return at last to the stability and safety of the communist period. Cheer for Stalin, cheer for Putin, cheer for Medvedev, and the media will once again be predictable, salaries will be paid on time, Russia’s neighbours will be cowed, and Russia’s leaders will, once again, negotiate on equal terms with the leaders of the West.

Besides, the more people take pride in the Stalinist past, the less likely they are to want a system that is more genuinely democratic and genuinely capitalist – a system in which the Russians might, for example, vote their president out of power, or hold a street revolution of the kind that brought down corrupt, post-Soviet governments in Georgia and Ukraine. The more nostalgia there is for Soviet-era symbols, the more secure the KGB clique is going to be.

None of which implies that the current Russian government is itself Stalinist either. As the recent election of Medvedev proved, Putin does not need that level of repression in order to stay in power. Too much violence might even threaten his legitimacy which is, as I say, based on an implied guarantee of stability and safety.
Nor was this rewriting of history ever inevitable. Despite the clichés people often spout about Russians invariably leaning towards authoritarianism or dictatorship, Russia was never condemned to celebrate this version of history.

On the contrary, a future government could, instead, rediscover the legacy of Russian liberalism at the beginning of the 20th century or even the legacy of the Russian dissidents, who in the 1960s and 1970s essentially invented what we now call the modern human rights movement. Every country has a right to celebrate some positive elements of its past, and Russia is no exception. But that Putin and his colleagues have chosen, of all things, to celebrate Stalinist imperialism tells us a good deal about their vision of their country’s future.

Anne Applebaum is the author of 'Gulag: a History’ (Penguin)

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Iceland, going down for the count with humor.

Putin, Thick as a Brick

Putin's idea of globalization of LNG is that a strong cartel is necessary. Why on earth would any rational country trust Russia and a new cartel to supply them with gas? It would seem to be obvious, that any domestic energy plan would use anything other than imported gas or petroleum from a new cartel, especially one controlled by Russia and the esteemed membership of Iran, Venezuela, Saudi Arabia and other dear friends.

It is hard to conceive of a better argument for national nuclear power or any domestic source at any cost.


Russia look to control world's gas prices

Plan for 'gas Opec' could tighten Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's grip on Europe's gas supplies.

By Miriam Elder in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, Russia Telegraph
Last Updated: 9:35PM GMT 27 Dec 2008

The Russian national anthem blared over the loudspeakers as dozens of oilmen and officials braved the freezing cold to watch the tanker come in, celebrating the launch of year-round oil production from Sakhalin-2, the largest oil and gas project in the world.

They congratulated themselves and stared out to the sea with pride.

Yet this month's event will be dwarfed by one to come early next year, when the sprawling plant on the tip of Russia's Far Eastern island of Sakhalin begins producing liquefied natural gas, or LNG, a relatively new form of energy.

The advent of LNG may one day allow gas exporting countries, who gathered in Moscow last week to create a new organisation, to act as a cartel along the lines of Opec, holding sway over prices and supply, and thus consumers around the world.

Today, most natural gas is pumped through pipelines. Storage is difficult and the price of gas is linked to the price of oil.

Producers, like Russia's Gazprom, set prices within decades-long contracts, typically lasting 25 years.

LNG changes all that. To make LNG, the gas is frozen into a liquid form, allowing it to be stored in tanks and shipped around the world, just like oil. And priced just like oil, too.

So far, most members of the Gas Exporting Countries Forum, an informal grouping that was transformed into a proper organisation at a meeting in Moscow this week, deny any ambition to create a Gas OPEC.

The meeting itself was confused. Energy ministers from a dozen countries, accounting for around 60 per cent of the world's gas export supply gathered at a grand Moscow hotel, presided over by Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister.

They agreed to set up a headquarters in Doha, Qatar – the world's main producer of LNG – and start the search for a secretary general.

They also claimed to adopt a charter, but no signing ceremony was held and no details released.

The loudest grumbles on price setting came from the energy ministers of Iran and Venezuela. Venezuela does not export any gas yet. While Iran probably possesses the world's second largest reserves, its wholly inefficient industry, starved of foreign investment and outside technical help by the sanctions imposed over its nuclear programme, make it a net importer of gas.

Meanwhile, energy ministers from Arab countries spent a lot of time arguing that action must first be taken to boost the oil price, urging Russia to join OPEC in production cuts.

The whole gathering seemed like much ado about nothing – a token event designed to stir fears in the West rather than set up an organised group with a focused mission.

Yet that it is what many said when OPEC was first formed in the mid-1960s.

The Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries functioned haphazardly for years, before consolidating and showing its strength during the Yom Kippur War of 1973, when Saudi Arabia led an oil embargo on the West, imposed in retaliation for its support for Israel. This caused the oil price to quadruple and created serious shortages.

Fear over a "Gas OPEC" in the West stems largely from the fact that Russia has a record of using its energy exports as a political tool.

It is currently embroiled in a payment dispute with Ukraine, and has warned it will shut off the gas if Kiev fails to pay a bill for $2 billion by Dec 31. Because Ukraine is the conduit for gas supplies to Europe, other countries could be affected if the situation is not resolved.

This dispute, which has become an annual occurrence, largely comes down to money. But the first such spat came after Ukraine ushered in a Western-leaning government during the Orange Revolution in 2004. Gazprom, Russia's state energy giant, sharply raised the price of its gas exports to Ukraine. Kiev was unable to pay and supplies were promptly cut off in midwinter, a step that also reduced the flow of gas to Europe, most of which travels through pipelines that cross Ukraine.

No-one is quite certain what happened earlier this year, when Russian oil supplies to the Czech Republic suddenly dropped the day after Prague agreed to host a radar station as part of America's missile defence programme. Russia cited technical reasons. The Czech government was not so sure.

Now that oil prices have dropped below $50 a barrel, from a peak of $147 in mid-July, and gas prices have been brought down accordingly, producers have an interest in acting together, said Jonathan Stern, the head of gas research at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies.

If the price falls even further, he said the "operating costs of these countries start to be threatened, and we would start to hear some people saying the current pricing mechanism is not appropriate".

Mr Putin himself warned at the Moscow meeting that the world would not enjoy cheap gas for much longer. But the use of LNG – of the kind that will be produced at Sakhalin-2 – will make a gas cartel most feasible.

So far, LNG production only makes up around 10 per cent of the world's gas supply, mainly in Asia, but also in North America, Britain and Spain. When Sakhalin-2 is up and running, that proportion will immediately rise to 16 per cent.

Many wondered what exactly was at stake in 2006, when Sakhalin-2 operator RoyalDutch Shell became the target of a state campaign accusing the project of massive environmental violations. At the time, the project was the only major one in Russia not to include a local partner. The environmental allegations disappeared once Gazprom bought a majority stake in December 2006.

Many thought it was just another case of resource nationalism, as the oil price continued its climb to record highs. But the Kremlin will also have registered the strategic importance of LNG.

For Sale - like new, slightly used M60

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Hamas Asked for Trouble. Israel is Giving it to Them.

Hamas was warned. (This was a live feed. Sound begins at 1:38.)

Israeli Gaza raid kills 180, wounds 800
27/12/2008 12:09:29

Israeli warplanes have carried out a massive airstrike on Hamas security compounds inside the Gaza Strip, killing at least 180 and wounding 800 others.

At least 180 people have been killed and 800 other Palestinians have been wounded in the Israeli blitz, a Press TV correspondent reported from the Gaza Strip.

Video footages showed the bodies of dead people including men, women and children on Gaza streets.

Hamas radio reported that Gaza police chief Tawfiq Jabber was among the dead.

Israel F16 bombers and apache helicopters carried out at least 30 simultaneous raids on at least 30 separate targets in Gaza City.

Israeli tanks are said to be moving closer to the impoverished region which has been under a strict Israeli-imposed blockade.

Israeli authorities have announced that they would continue the attacks.

"This is only just the beginning of an operation launched after a security cabinet decision. It could take time. We have not fixed a timeline and we will act according to the situation on the ground," Israeli Military spokesman Avi Benayahu told army radio on Saturday.

The strikes have caused widespread panic and confusion among the Gaza residents who have refused to withdraw their support form the Hamas resistance movement.

Hamas does not recognize Israel as a legitimate state.

A Hamas spokesman said Israel will pay a heavy price for the attacks.

Hamas spokesperson Fawzi Barhoum told our correspondent that Tel Aviv carried out the strikes after receiving green light from its allies and certain regional countries.

Barhoum described the raids as 'collective punishment' of Palestinians.

Palestinian Authority Chief Mahmoud Abbas in West Bank said in a statement that he "condemns this aggression" , according to an aide, Nabil Abu Rdeneh.

Source: Press TV

Forced Abortions and Eating Cats in China

Fancy some cat for lunch?

What does eating cat and forced abortions have in common? Not much, except to focus on how different the Chinese are from us in the West. You have to go to China to see and understand the public harshness and apparent indifference to everyday cruelties. China is a tough and cruel place. That is their business, but our leaders should not delude themselves that the Chinese will ever play the game in the same way that we expect.

The Chinese act in their own interest and to their own advantage. Eating cats and forcing married woman to abort near term pregnancies is not that shocking to the Chinese. Neither is stealing technology and promoting economic policies meant to dominate and destroy competitors and industries. There are cultural differences that are profound and they will not change anytime soon. As we develop recovery plans for the future, we need to re-adjust our views and dealings with China. We need to focus our interests with people that share our values.

Forced abortions in China
BY DHEERA SUJAN - Radio Netherlands (listen here)

For decades, China has implemented a One Child policy, overturning hundreds of years of tradition which stressed the importance of large families, including several sons. It was a sign of tremendous political discipline that a mindset stretching back centuries could be overturned in just one generation.

Jin Yani and her husband Yang Zhongchen Urban families are restricted one child, rural families sometimes allowed two or for some ethnic groups, even three children. However in recent years, the policy has not been uniformly enforced. Wealthier couples who can pay the fines and penalties involved with having more than one child, do. Poorer families however don't have that option.

Thousands adopted

So in a culture that still values sons over daughters, girl infants (often the second daughters of rural families) are abandoned and adopted out of the country which allows a chance for couples to try for that much needed son. Although the slow trickle down of China's immense economic boom is slowing down the trend, China still provides thousands of babies - by far most of them girls, or handicapped children of both sexes - for the international adoption circuit every year.
The government claims that enforcing the One Child policy has been responsible for spreading the wealth, and that the country's limited resources would have had to feed 400 million more people had the policy not been implemented. Sometimes however the means justifying the end are particularly brutal.

Forced to abort

Local family planning agencies are responsible for keeping birth quotas low, and in some places their eagerness to meet their statistics over reach the actual policy. No case illustrates this more graphically that that of Jin Yani, young, recently married and happily expecting her first child.

Just days away from her due date, she was resting in the house of her mother-in-law one evening when a van pulled up outside their door. She was dragged outside, forced into the van and taken to the local family planning centre. Even eight years later, she sobs as she recounts what happened next:
"Someone said, ‘you have to come with us, who gave you permission to have a child'. After a while we stopped at a building that looked like a hospital. Later I learned it was the family planning centre. They dragged me inside and started to examine me. They wanted to give me an injection, but I refused. I got down on my knees and pleaded with them that I wanted to be a mother and keep my child. I said I was willing to pay, 10,000 or 20,000 Yuan, but they would not listen. Then two guys dragged me into a room, the equipment looked rather old and not very good. Some people who looked like doctors came in. They held me down and gave me an injection. I passed out."
Her husband, Yang Zhongchen was away on business when his wife was taken away. On hearing what had happened, he rushed home, to find his wife in a shocking physical state:
"I could not have imagined that something like this was even possible. When I arrived at her bed side she was all blue and very weak. I said to them you have killed my baby, now don't kill my wife, do whatever it takes to keep her alive. The doctor told us that the dead baby wouldn't come out naturally. It was too big. They would have to use forceps to crush its head. Then they ripped it out of the womb by force. I don't like to think about it. Whenever I remember this, I am about to faint."

Greasing the wheels

Neither of them really understand why this happened to them. Perhaps it was because they married a year short of the legal marriageable age, or perhaps they hadn't filled out the requisite paperwork to have this child. It was something that Yang thought he could do after the birth of the baby, and in fact he had even taken out the local officials to dinner in the obligatory way to grease the wheels of the local bureaucracy, but now suspects that he simply had not paid a large enough bribe. So in effect, they were put through this ordeal because of a bureaucratic technicality.
Despite the one child policy, forced abortions are illegal in China, but there have been reported - and then hushed up - cases in scattered rural areas. Stories have emerged of women being physically forced to abort very late term pregnancies, of relatives of pregnant women being imprisoned and tortured until she accedes to an abortion. Activists who try to bring the subject to light are harassed or jailed and people are reluctant to discuss a subject that is close to taboo.

No apology

Jin Yani and Yang Zhongchen are unusual in that they decided to fight the authorities, to get them to answer for what they did. They have lost their business and their life savings in the monumental effort to take the local officials to court, but as yet, they have been offered neither compensation, nor apology. Their hopes of having a baby dim with every passing year, and they suspect that too much damage has been done to Jin Yani's body by the forced abortion for her to be able to conceive again. Yang Zhongchen sums up the many sided grief he and his wife must live with, perhaps for the rest of their lives:
"They took our family life. Look at us: We don't have a child, my wife is sick, we are no longer a normal family. And we didn't get justice..., no matter what the future holds for us, the shadows of the past can never be erased."

Friday, December 26, 2008

Nouriel Roubini - Madman to Prophet

If you've never heard of Nouriel Roubini, don't worry, chances are his name will soon become a household word.

“He sounded like a madman in 2006, He was a prophet when he returned in 2007.”
He recently said that "things are going to get much worse" with the unemployment rate going above 9% next year which according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics will be the highest since 1983.


The New York Times

August 17, 2008
Dr. Doom

On Sept. 7, 2006, Nouriel Roubini, an economics professor at New York University, stood before an audience of economists at the International Monetary Fund and announced that a crisis was brewing. In the coming months and years, he warned, the United States was likely to face a once-in-a-lifetime housing bust, an oil shock, sharply declining consumer confidence and, ultimately, a deep recession. He laid out a bleak sequence of events: homeowners defaulting on mortgages, trillions of dollars of mortgage-backed securities unraveling worldwide and the global financial system shuddering to a halt. These developments, he went on, could cripple or destroy hedge funds, investment banks and other major financial institutions like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

The audience seemed skeptical, even dismissive. As Roubini stepped down from the lectern after his talk, the moderator of the event quipped, “I think perhaps we will need a stiff drink after that.” People laughed — and not without reason. At the time, unemployment and inflation remained low, and the economy, while weak, was still growing, despite rising oil prices and a softening housing market. And then there was the espouser of doom himself: Roubini was known to be a perpetual pessimist, what economists call a “permabear.” When the economist Anirvan Banerji delivered his response to Roubini’s talk, he noted that Roubini’s predictions did not make use of mathematical models and dismissed his hunches as those of a career naysayer.

But Roubini was soon vindicated. In the year that followed, subprime lenders began entering bankruptcy, hedge funds began going under and the stock market plunged. There was declining employment, a deteriorating dollar, ever-increasing evidence of a huge housing bust and a growing air of panic in financial markets as the credit crisis deepened. By late summer, the Federal Reserve was rushing to the rescue, making the first of many unorthodox interventions in the economy, including cutting the lending rate by 50 basis points and buying up tens of billions of dollars in mortgage-backed securities. When Roubini returned to the I.M.F. last September, he delivered a second talk, predicting a growing crisis of solvency that would infect every sector of the financial system. This time, no one laughed. “He sounded like a madman in 2006,” recalls the I.M.F. economist Prakash Loungani, who invited Roubini on both occasions. “He was a prophet when he returned in 2007.”

Over the past year, whenever optimists have declared the worst of the economic crisis behind us, Roubini has countered with steadfast pessimism. In February, when the conventional wisdom held that the venerable investment firms of Wall Street would weather the crisis, Roubini warned that one or more of them would go “belly up” — and six weeks later, Bear Stearns collapsed. Following the Fed’s further extraordinary actions in the spring — including making lines of credit available to selected investment banks and brokerage houses — many economists made note of the ensuing economic rally and proclaimed the credit crisis over and a recession averted. Roubini, who dismissed the rally as nothing more than a “delusional complacency” encouraged by a “bunch of self-serving spinmasters,” stuck to his script of “nightmare” events: waves of corporate bankrupticies, collapses in markets like commercial real estate and municipal bonds and, most alarming, the possible bankruptcy of a large regional or national bank that would trigger a panic by depositors. Not all of these developments have come to pass (and perhaps never will), but the demise last month of the California bank IndyMac — one of the largest such failures in U.S. history — drew only more attention to Roubini’s seeming prescience.

As a result, Roubini, a respected but formerly obscure academic, has become a major figure in the public debate about the economy: the seer who saw it coming. He has been summoned to speak before Congress, the Council on Foreign Relations and the World Economic Forum at Davos. He is now a sought-after adviser, spending much of his time shuttling between meetings with central bank governors and finance ministers in Europe and Asia. Though he continues to issue colorful doomsday prophecies of a decidedly nonmainstream sort — especially on his popular and polemical blog, where he offers visions of “equity market slaughter” and the “Coming Systemic Bust of the U.S. Banking System” — the mainstream economic establishment appears to be moving closer, however fitfully, to his way of seeing things. “I have in the last few months become more pessimistic than the consensus,” the former Treasury secretary Lawrence Summers told me earlier this year. “Certainly, Nouriel’s writings have been a contributor to that.”

On a cold and dreary day last winter, I met Roubini over lunch in the TriBeCa neighborhood of New York City. “I’m not a pessimist by nature,” he insisted. “I’m not someone who sees things in a bleak way.” Just looking at him, I found the assertion hard to credit. With a dour manner and an aura of gloom about him, Roubini gives the impression of being permanently pained, as if the burden of what he knows is almost too much for him to bear. He rarely smiles, and when he does, his face, topped by an unruly mop of brown hair, contorts into something more closely resembling a grimace.

When I pressed him on his claim that he wasn’t pessimistic, he paused for a moment and then relented a little. “I have more concerns about potential risks and vulnerabilities than most people,” he said, with glum understatement. But these concerns, he argued, make him more of a realist than a pessimist and put him in the role of the cleareyed outsider — unsettling complacency and puncturing pieties.

Roubini, who is 50, has been an outsider his entire life. He was born in Istanbul, the child of Iranian Jews, and his family moved to Tehran when he was 2, then to Tel Aviv and finally to Italy, where he grew up and attended college. He moved to the United States to pursue his doctorate in international economics at Harvard. Along the way he became fluent in Farsi, Hebrew, Italian and English. His accent, an inimitable polyglot growl, radiates a weariness that comes with being what he calls a “global nomad.”

As a graduate student at Harvard, Roubini was an unusual talent, according to his adviser, the Columbia economist Jeffrey Sachs. He was as comfortable in the world of arcane mathematics as he was studying political and economic institutions. “It’s a mix of skills that rarely comes packaged in one person,” Sachs told me. After completing his Ph.D. in 1988, Roubini joined the economics department at Yale, where he first met and began sharing ideas with Robert Shiller, the economist now known for his prescient warnings about the 1990s tech bubble.

The ’90s were an eventful time for an international economist like Roubini. Throughout the decade, one emerging economy after another was beset by crisis, beginning with Mexico’s in 1994. Panics swept Asia, including Thailand, Indonesia and Korea, in 1997 and 1998. The economies of Brazil and Russia imploded in 1998. Argentina’s followed in 2000. Roubini began studying these countries and soon identified what he saw as their common weaknesses. On the eve of the crises that befell them, he noticed, most had huge current-account deficits (meaning, basically, that they spent far more than they made), and they typically financed these deficits by borrowing from abroad in ways that exposed them to the national equivalent of bank runs. Most of these countries also had poorly regulated banking systems plagued by excessive borrowing and reckless lending. Corporate governance was often weak, with cronyism in abundance.

Roubini’s work was distinguished not only by his conclusions but also by his approach. By making extensive use of transnational comparisons and historical analogies, he was employing a subjective, nontechnical framework, the sort embraced by popular economists like the Times Op-Ed columnist Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz in order to reach a nonacademic audience. Roubini takes pains to note that he remains a rigorous scholarly economist — “When I weigh evidence,” he told me, “I’m drawing on 20 years of accumulated experience using models” — but his approach is not the contemporary scholarly ideal in which an economist builds a model in order to constrain his subjective impressions and abide by a discrete set of data. As Shiller told me, “Nouriel has a different way of seeing things than most economists: he gets into everything.”

Roubini likens his style to that of a policy maker like Alan Greenspan, the former Fed chairman who was said (perhaps apocryphally) to pore over vast quantities of technical economic data while sitting in the bathtub, looking to sniff out where the economy was headed. Roubini also cites, as a more ideologically congenial example, the sweeping, cosmopolitan approach of the legendary economist John Maynard Keynes, whom Roubini, with only slight exaggeration, calls “the most brilliant economist who never wrote down an equation.” The book that Roubini ultimately wrote (with the economist Brad Setser) on the emerging market crises, “Bailouts or Bail-Ins?” contains not a single equation in its 400-plus pages.

After analyzing the markets that collapsed in the ’90s, Roubini set out to determine which country’s economy would be the next to succumb to the same pressures. His surprising answer: the United States’. “The United States,” Roubini remembers thinking, “looked like the biggest emerging market of all.” Of course, the United States wasn’t an emerging market; it was (and still is) the largest economy in the world. But Roubini was unnerved by what he saw in the U.S. economy, in particular its 2004 current-account deficit of $600 billion. He began writing extensively about the dangers of that deficit and then branched out, researching the various effects of the credit boom — including the biggest housing bubble in the nation’s history — that began after the Federal Reserve cut rates to close to zero in 2003. Roubini became convinced that the housing bubble was going to pop.

By late 2004 he had started to write about a “nightmare hard landing scenario for the United States.” He predicted that foreign investors would stop financing the fiscal and current-account deficit and abandon the dollar, wreaking havoc on the economy. He said that these problems, which he called the “twin financial train wrecks,” might manifest themselves in 2005 or, at the latest, 2006. “You have been warned here first,” he wrote ominously on his blog. But by the end of 2006, the train wrecks hadn’t occurred.

Recessions are signal events in any modern economy. And yet remarkably, the profession of economics is quite bad at predicting them. A recent study looked at “consensus forecasts” (the predictions of large groups of economists) that were made in advance of 60 different national recessions that hit around the world in the ’90s: in 97 percent of the cases, the study found, the economists failed to predict the coming contraction a year in advance. On those rare occasions when economists did successfully predict recessions, they significantly underestimated the severity of the downturns. Worse, many of the economists failed to anticipate recessions that occurred as soon as two months later.

The dismal science, it seems, is an optimistic profession. Many economists, Roubini among them, argue that some of the optimism is built into the very machinery, the mathematics, of modern economic theory. Econometric models typically rely on the assumption that the near future is likely to be similar to the recent past, and thus it is rare that the models anticipate breaks in the economy. And if the models can’t foresee a relatively minor break like a recession, they have even more trouble modeling and predicting a major rupture like a full-blown financial crisis. Only a handful of 20th-century economists have even bothered to study financial panics. (The most notable example is probably the late economist Hyman Minksy, of whom Roubini is an avid reader.) “These are things most economists barely understand,” Roubini told me. “We’re in uncharted territory where standard economic theory isn’t helpful.”

True though this may be, Roubini’s critics do not agree that his approach is any more accurate. Anirvan Banerji, the economist who challenged Roubini’s first I.M.F. talk, points out that Roubini has been peddling pessimism for years; Banerji contends that Roubini’s apparent foresight is nothing more than an unhappy coincidence of events. “Even a stopped clock is right twice a day,” he told me. “The justification for his bearish call has evolved over the years,” Banerji went on, ticking off the different reasons that Roubini has used to justify his predictions of recessions and crises: rising trade deficits, exploding current-account deficits, Hurricane Katrina, soaring oil prices. All of Roubini’s predictions, Banerji observed, have been based on analogies with past experience. “This forecasting by analogy is a tempting thing to do,” he said. “But you have to pick the right analogy. The danger of this more subjective approach is that instead of letting the objective facts shape your views, you will choose the facts that confirm your existing views.”

Kenneth Rogoff, an economist at Harvard who has known Roubini for decades, told me that he sees great value in Roubini’s willingness to entertain possible situations that are far outside the consensus view of most economists. “If you’re sitting around at the European Central Bank,” he said, “and you’re asking what’s the worst thing that could happen, the first thing people will say is, ‘Let’s see what Nouriel says.’ ” But Rogoff cautioned against equating that skill with forecasting. Roubini, in other words, might be the kind of economist you want to consult about the possibility of the collapse of the municipal-bond market, but he is not necessarily the kind you ask to predict, say, the rise in global demand for paper clips.

His defenders contend that Roubini is not unduly pessimistic. Jeffrey Sachs, his former adviser, told me that “if the underlying conditions call for optimism, Nouriel would be optimistic.” And to be sure, Roubini is capable of being optimistic — or at least of steering clear of absolute worst-case prognostications. He agrees, for example, with the conventional economic wisdom that oil will drop below $100 a barrel in the coming months as global demand weakens. “I’m not comfortable saying that we’re going to end up in the Great Depression,” he told me. “I’m a reasonable person.”

What economic developments does Roubini see on the horizon? And what does he think we should do about them? The first step, he told me in a recent conversation, is to acknowledge the extent of the problem. “We are in a recession, and denying it is nonsense,” he said. When Jim Nussle, the White House budget director, announced last month that the nation had “avoided a recession,” Roubini was incredulous. For months, he has been predicting that the United States will suffer through an 18-month recession that will eventually rank as the “worst since the Great Depression.” Though he is confident that the economy will enter a technical recovery toward the end of next year, he says that job losses, corporate bankruptcies and other drags on growth will continue to take a toll for years.

Roubini has counseled various policy makers, including Federal Reserve governors and senior Treasury Department officials, to mount an aggressive response to the crisis. He applauded when the Federal Reserve cut interest rates to 2 percent from 5.25 percent beginning last summer. He also supported the Fed’s willingness to engineer a takeover of Bear Stearns. Roubini argues that the Fed’s actions averted catastrophe, though he says he believes that future bailouts should focus on mortgage owners, not investors. Accordingly, he sees the choice facing the United States as stark but simple: either the government backs up a trillion-plus dollars’ worth of high-risk mortgages (in exchange for the lenders’ agreement to reduce monthly mortgage payments), or the banks and other institutions holding those mortgages — or the complex securities derived from them — go under. “You either nationalize the banks or you nationalize the mortgages,” he said. “Otherwise, they’re all toast.”

For months Roubini has been arguing that the true cost of the housing crisis will not be a mere $300 billion — the amount allowed for by the housing legislation sponsored by Representative Barney Frank and Senator Christopher Dodd — but something between a trillion and a trillion and a half dollars. But most important, in Roubini’s opinion, is to realize that the problem is deeper than the housing crisis. “Reckless people have deluded themselves that this was a subprime crisis,” he told me. “But we have problems with credit-card debt, student-loan debt, auto loans, commercial real estate loans, home-equity loans, corporate debt and loans that financed leveraged buyouts.” All of these forms of debt, he argues, suffer from some or all of the same traits that first surfaced in the housing market: shoddy underwriting, securitization, negligence on the part of the credit-rating agencies and lax government oversight. “We have a subprime financial system,” he said, “not a subprime mortgage market.”

Roubini argues that most of the losses from this bad debt have yet to be written off, and the toll from bad commercial real estate loans alone may help send hundreds of local banks into the arms of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. “A good third of the regional banks won’t make it,” he predicted. In turn, these bailouts will add hundreds of billions of dollars to an already gargantuan federal debt, and someone, somewhere, is going to have to finance that debt, along with all the other debt accumulated by consumers and corporations. “Our biggest financiers are China, Russia and the gulf states,” Roubini noted. “These are rivals, not allies.”

The United States, Roubini went on, will likely muddle through the crisis but will emerge from it a different nation, with a different place in the world. “Once you run current-account deficits, you depend on the kindness of strangers,” he said, pausing to let out a resigned sigh. “This might be the beginning of the end of the American empire.”

Stephen Mihm, an assistant professor of economic history at the University of Georgia, is the author of “A Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men and the Making of the United States.” His last feature article for the magazine was about North Korean counterfeiting.
The news this morning paints a bleak picture of retail discounts in the wake of disappointing Christmas sales. Never mind that deep discounts and bargains always follow Christmas day, according to the doomsayers this year is "really bad". It may be but what is really bad is the constant drone of a press afflicted with a severe case of anul myopia. Well, I am hopeful that with a new and highly admired President, this too will change.

I don't disagree with Roubini, (who am I to do so?) it's just that I'm in a kind of "kill the messenger", no whining, no puss faces mood.

Come on, have a Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Situational Leadership and Barack Obama

The Situational Leadership method from Kenneth Blanchard and Paul Hersey holds that managers must use different leadership styles depending on the situation. The model allows you to analyze the needs of the situation you're in, and then use the most appropriate leadership style. Depending on employees'competences in their task areas and commitment to their tasks, your leadership style should vary from one person to another. You may even lead the same person one way sometimes, and another way at other times.

A changed man?

Paul Greenberg, Washington Times
Saturday, December 20, 2008

Power not only corrupts, it can educate. It can turn an attractive young politician given to empty slogans (Hope! Change! Audacity!) into a responsible leader wary of rash action. It's easy enough to second-guess those in power; any newspaper columnist can do it. I know. It's another thing to have to go beyond the catch phrases of a campaign and -- Good Lord! -- actually have to assume high office. And take responsibility for fateful decisions.

There will always be those eager to exercise power. They're the ones most likely to abuse it. But there are also those who, once they feel the weight of responsibility gathering about their shoulders, rise above their campaign promises. Reality begins to set in, and they begin to recognize it. The closer they come to power, the more prudent they grow. Another word for this process is maturity.

Which kind of politician is the next president of the United States? Barack Obama's fast-evolving course on the war in Iraq, and how to manage what begins to look like an American victory there, affords hope.

Consider the progress he's made: Mr. Obama began his two-year campaign for the presidency by saying he would end this war now! Later it would be within a definite time: 16 months.

As late as last July, laying out his policy for Iraq, he still sounded like a candidate who would act first and consider the consequences later. "I intend to end this war," he assured his followers. "My first day in office, I will bring the Joint Chiefs of Staff in and I will give them a new mission, and that is to end this war - responsibly, deliberately, but decisively."

The same month, holding a news conference in Jordan, he had to acknowledge that the surge he'd opposed had made Iraq far more secure than he'd imagined it could, but he was still adamant about getting American troops out of Iraq forthwith, saying he'd overrule American commanders if necessary to meet his arbitrary deadline.

He didn't sound like someone who would choose the current administration's secretary of defense as his own. Or pick a tough-minded, strictly business Marine general (and an old friend of John McCain's) as his national security adviser.

Now president-elect, Barack Obama has done both. Reality dawns, and he's proceeded to recognize it by recasting his earlier, incautious remarks. Announcing Cabinet appointments, including still-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, he explained: "I said that I would remove our combat troops from Iraq in 16 months, with the understanding that it might be necessary - likely to be necessary - to maintain a residual force to provide training, logistical support, to protect our civilians in Iraq."

The muted reservations he once attached to his demands for a prompt withdrawal of American troops from Iraq now have replaced the withdrawal itself as a goal.

Barack Obama still cannot bring himself to utter the word victory in connection with Iraq, but he's at least backed away from his promises of what would have been a defeat. To quote the country's once and future secretary of defense, Robert Gates, "Nobody wants to put at risk the gains that have been achieved, with so much sacrifice, on the part of our soldiers and the Iraqis. ..."

So far the antiwar crowd, from to the Impeach Bush crowd, hasn't seemed to much notice, let alone object, to Mr. Obama's slow but steady change of course. Or perhaps, in the presence of an undeniable if unheralded success for American arms, even the angry left has come to recognize that defeat in Iraq may now be a lost cause.

As Barack Obama grows more realistic, the continuity of American foreign policy seems more assured each passing day. There's nothing like power to breed responsibility. And the closer Barack Obama gets to becoming president - and commander in chief - the more responsible he sounds. When it comes to Iraq, the next president of the United States is starting to sound remarkably like ... the current one.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Frightening, not so moderate appointments

Obama names Holdren, Lubchenco to science posts

Sat Dec 20, 9:18 AM EST

President-elect Barack Obama on Saturday named a Harvard physicist and a marine biologist to science posts, signaling a change from Bush administration policies on global warming that were criticized for putting politics over science.

Both John Holdren and Jane Lubchenco are leading experts on climate change who have advocated forceful government response. Holdren will become Obama's science adviser as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; Lubchenco will lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees ocean and atmospheric studies and does much of the government's research on global warming.

Holdren also will direct the president's Council of Advisers on Science and Technology. Joining him as co-chairs will be Nobel Prize-winning scientist Harold Varmus, a former director of the National Institutes of Health, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Eric Lander, a specialist in human genome research.

"From landing on the moon, to sequencing the human genome, to inventing the Internet, America has been the first to cross that new frontier because we had leaders who paved the way," Obama said in announcing his selections in his weekly radio address. "Leaders who not only invested in our scientists, but who respected the integrity of the scientific process."

"Because the truth is that promoting science isn't just about providing resources — it's about protecting free and open inquiry. It's about ensuring that facts and evidence are never twisted or obscured by politics or ideology," he said. "I could not have a better team to guide me in this work."

In their posts, the four scientists will confront challenges in global warming after years of inaction by the Bush administration, which opposed mandatory cuts of greenhouse gas pollution. Last year, former Surgeon General Richard Carmona testified to Congress that top Bush administration officials often dismissed global warming as a "liberal cause" and sought to play down public health reports out of political considerations.

Since 1993, summer Arctic sea ice has lost the equivalent of Alaska, California and Texas, and global warming is accelerating. The amount of carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere has already pushed past the level some scientists say is safe.

Holdren, 64, is a former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington who has pushed for more urgent action on global warming. As Obama's top science adviser, he would manage about 40 Ph.D-level experts who help shape and communicate science and technology policy.

Colleagues say the post is well-suited for Holdren, who at Harvard went from battling the spread of nuclear weapons to tackling the threat of global warming. He's an award-laden scientist comfortable in many different fields.

"Global warming is a misnomer. It implies something gradual, something uniform, something quite possibly benign, and what we're experiencing is none of those," Holdren said a year ago in a speech at Harvard. "There is already widespread harm ... occurring from climate change. This is not just a problem for our children and our grandchildren."

Lubchenco, an Oregon State University professor specializing in overfishing and climate change, will be the first woman to head NOAA. A member of the Pew Oceans Commission, Lubchenco has recommended steps to overcome crippling damage to the world's oceans from overfishing and pollution and has expressed optimism for change once President George W. Bush leaves office.

"The Bush administration has not been respectful of the science," she said earlier this year. "But I think that's not true of Republicans in general. I know it's not. I am very much looking forward to a new administration that does respect scientific information and that considers it very seriously in making environmental policies."

Varmus, who was a co-recipient of the Nobel Prize for his research on the causes of cancer, served as National Institutes of Health director during the Clinton administration. A former medical professor at the University of California, San Francisco, he helped found the Ralph Lauren Center for Cancer Care and Prevention and chairs a scientific board at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Lander, who teaches at both MIT and Harvard, founded the Whitehead Institute-MIT Center for Genome Research in 1990, which became part of the Broad Institute in 2003. A leading researcher in the Human Genome Project, he and his colleagues are using the findings to explore the molecular mechanisms behind human disease.

In his radio address, Obama said he planned early next year to more closely address the issue of engaging the nation's technology community to "harness technology and innovation to create jobs, enhance America's competitiveness and advance our national priorities."

"It's time we once again put science at the top of our agenda and worked to restore America's place as the world leader in science and technology," he said.


Associated Press writers Seth Borenstein and Matthew Daly contributed to this report.
The heat is being turned up. Climate change is much too mild. Look for more "climate crisis" rhetoric. "This is an emergency and as we know, dire times call for dire measures."

"There is no Afghanistan, just a patchwork of tribes and tribal alliances."

According to this article, Afghanistan is very much a criminal family affair, more in keeping with the Sicilian Mafia than a war of politics and religion. Sounds about right to me.

Hat Tip: Doug

Two More Years Of Magic Will Do It

Strategy Page

December 18, 2008:

A lot of the fighting in Afghanistan isn't about religion or "expelling the foreigners." No, it's usually about money, power and tribal politics. The current Afghan government is having the same problems "running the country" that the Taliban did. These were the same problems the loose coalition that defeated the communist government in the early 1990s had. These were the same problems that the monarchy had for over a century, even though the kings were usually well aware of what they were dealing with (a loose coalition of tribes and ethnic groups that don't really get along, but really can't afford to be at war for a long time.) Afghanistan has always been a poor country. Banditry can be sustained indefinitely, especially now that the foreign troops and NGOs are here, with all manner of things to steal. Afghans don't consider it theft if you take something you need (or, let's face it, just want) from someone outside your tribe. That's just taking care of your own. And therein lies the problem. There is no Afghanistan, just a patchwork of tribes and tribal alliances. Within the larger tribes there are often nasty rivalries between large clans. Then there are the newly rich drug gangs, which are tribe based, and have changed the power relationships among some of the tribes.

The "Taliban" (religiously conservative, and violent, factions) are on a mission from God to impose strict lifestyle rules, and turn the country into a religious dictatorship. The Taliban were unable to do that by the end of 2001, and are less likely to do it in the future. But fueled by a share of the drug profits and the proceeds of other criminal enterprises (especially extortion and kidnapping) they can still entice poor, but adventurous, country boys to come along and raise some hell. And usually get killed by smart bombs the star struck kids cannot comprehend. Meanwhile, more and more of the tribes are getting a clue and making peace with the central government.

While the national rulers tend to be thieves, they are also willing to share the loot. That's another ancient Afghan custom, and U.S. and NATO commanders are willing to play along in order to prevent the country from slipping back into anarchy (real anarchy, not the Taliban terrorism that passes for it these days) and once more becomes a terrorist haven. The foreign generals believe it will take another year or two of smart bomb magic to kill enough thrill seeking tribesmen, to get all the tribes on board. The math is simple; the foreign troops can kill Afghans much better than the other way around.

Even the most pro-Taliban tribes eventually come to realize that, and live with it.

The country will not be peaceful at that point. There will still be the drug gangs and bandits (groups of armed tribesmen out of steal or settle some feud). But that's been going on for thousands of years, and won't change until the national police get themselves pulled together. That will take another generation or two. For most Afghans, "police" is an alien concept, and the corruption of most of the cops in service has been really bad public relations.

U.S. and NATO commanders are fed up with the "protection" scam being run them on the supply route from Peshawar, in the Pakistani tribal territories, to Kabul. The road runs through the 50 kilometer long Khyber pass, and that is but one part of a 500 kilometers trip over generally bad roads. The tribes that live along the road expect to be paid, as do the criminal gangs near the dozen truck staging areas (where shipping container are loaded). Some 50,000 of those containers a year carry U.S. and NATO military supplies. That's about half the traffic, which has increased greatly since the Taliban were tossed out of power in late 2001. Getting each container from the Pakistani port of Karachi to Kabul costs several thousands of dollars in fees, bribes and wages to Pakistanis, Afghans and assorted greedy officials and tribesmen along the way. Some tribal leaders say they are only interested in keeping the trucks from bringing alcohol and pornography into Afghanistan, but the bottom line is how much cash gets into the pockets of some of the gunmen living along the route.

The Taliban continue to get slaughtered whenever they mass, and get spotted by foreign troops. It's the damn smart bombs, and the UAVs that always seem to show up at the wrong time for the tribal gunmen. In response, the Taliban have tried to use more suicide and roadside bombs. There were 264 of these encountered in October, and 315 in November. Most of these bombs are poorly constructed and deployed. They are spotted, or don't go off. It takes 40-50 roadside bombs to kill one foreign soldier. A dozen or more local civilians are killed instead, which makes the Taliban roadside bombing program very unpopular. Civilians often tip off police when they see bombs being planted. Recruiting suicide bombers is difficult. One recent suicide bomber was a thirteen year old boy, whose explosives killed himself and three British troops.

December 10, 2008: During a night operation to capture a Taliban leader in the southern province of Zabul, U.S. Army Special Forces operators chased their suspect to a compound. When the Taliban inside would not surrender, the Special Forces began moving in to capture or kill the enemy gunmen. Several hundred meters away there was an Afghan police unit manning a roadblock. The Afghan police knew that U.S. troops were after some Taliban that night, but did not know exactly where the action was. Then they saw some men firing at a compound, and decided the attackers were Taliban. So the police opened fire. The Special Forces troops, not knowing it was police firing at them, fired back, and soon called in a smart bomb, which killed six of the police and wounded 13. The Taliban got away while the Special Forces troops were discovering that their "attackers" were actually police, and tending to the wounded.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Catastrophic Leadership of George W. Bush

Economic strength is the source of American power. Wealth and the exercise of power is not something to be frittered away in an unbalanced exchange of risk to reward. History will judge George W. Bush without passion or rancor or kindness. I am not capable of such restraint.


Bush Has Made Us Vulnerable

Two incompetently prosecuted wars have undermined our deterrent power.

By MARK HELPRIN Wall Street Journal

In his great Civil War history, "Decision in the West," Albert Castel describes the last Confederate hope of victory. If in 1864 the Confederate armies continue to exact a steep cost from the North, "the majority of Northerners will decide that going on with the war is not worth the financial and human cost and so will replace Lincoln and the Republicans with a Democratic president and Congress committed to stopping hostilities and instituting peace negotiations." He cites the resolution of the Confederate Congress that: "Brave and learned men in the North have spoken out against the usurpations and cruelties daily practiced. The success of these men over the radical and despotic faction which now rules the North may open the way to . . . a cessation of this bloody and unnecessary war." Plus ça change . . . .

The administrations of George W. Bush have virtually assured such a displacement by catastrophically throwing the country off balance, both politically and financially, while breaking the nation's sword in an inconclusive seven-year struggle against a ragtag enemy in two small bankrupt states. Their one great accomplishment -- no subsequent attacks on American soil thus far -- has been offset by the stunningly incompetent prosecution of the war. It could be no other way, with war aims that inexplicably danced up and down the scale, from "ending tyranny in the world," to reforging in a matter of months (with 130,000 troops) the political culture of the Arabs, to establishing a democracy in Iraq, to only reducing violence, to merely holding on in our cantonments until we withdraw.

This confusion has come at the price of transforming the military into a light and hollow semi-gendarmerie focused on irregular warfare and ill-equipped to deter the development and resurgence of the conventional and strategic forces of China and Russia, while begging challenges from rivals or enemies no longer constrained by our former reserves of strength. For seven years we failed to devise effective policy or make intelligent arguments for policies that were worth pursuing. Thus we capriciously forfeited the domestic and international political equilibrium without which alliances break apart and wars are seldom won.

The pity is that the war could have been successful and this equilibrium sustained had we struck immediately, preserving the link with September 11th; had we disciplined our objective to forcing upon regimes that nurture terrorism the choice of routing it out with their ruthless secret services or suffering the destruction of the means to power for which they live; had we husbanded our forces in the highly developed military areas of northern Saudi Arabia after deposing Saddam Hussein, where as a fleet in being they would suffer no casualties and remain at the ready to reach Baghdad, Damascus, or Riyadh in three days; and had we taken strong and effective measures for our domestic protection while striving to stay within constitutional limits and eloquently explaining the necessity -- as has always been the case in war -- for sometimes exceeding them. Today's progressives apologize to the world for America's treatment of terrorists (not a single one of whom has been executed). Franklin Roosevelt, when faced with German saboteurs (who had caused not a single casualty), had them electrocuted and buried in numbered graves next to a sewage plant.

The counterpart to Republican incompetence has been a Democratic opposition warped by sentiment. The deaths of thousands of Americans in attacks upon our embassies, warships, military barracks, civil aviation, capital, and largest city were not a criminal matter but an act of war made possible by governments and legions of enablers in the Arab world. Nothing short of war -- although not the war we have waged -- could have been sufficient in response. The opposition is embarrassed by patriotism and American self-interest, but above all it is blind to the gravity of the matter. Though scattered terrorists allied with militarily insignificant states are not, as some conservatives assert, closely analogous to Nazi Germany, the accessibility of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons makes the destructive capacity of these antagonists unfortunately similar -- a fact, especially in regard to Iran, that is persistently whistled away by the Left.

An existential threat of such magnitude cannot be averted by imagining that it is the work of one man and will disappear with his death; by mousefully pleasing the rest of the world; by hopefully excluding the tools of war; or by diplomacy without the potential of force, which is like a policeman without a gun, something that doesn't work anymore even in Britain. The Right should have labored to exhaustion to forge a coalition, and the Left should have been willing to proceed without one. The Right should have been more respectful of constitutional protections, and the Left should have joined in making temporary and clearly defined exceptions. In short, the Right should have had the wit to fight, and the Left should have had the will to fight.

Both failed. The country is exhausted, divided, and improperly protected, and will remain so if the new president and administration are merely another face of the same sterile duality. To avoid the costs of a stalled financial system, the two parties -- after an entire day of reflection -- committed to the expenditure of what with its trailing ends will probably be $1.5 trillion in this fiscal year alone.

But the costs of not reacting to China's military expansion, which could lead to its hegemony in the Pacific; or of ignoring a Russian resurgence, which could result in a new Cold War and Russian domination of Europe; or of suffering a nuclear detonation in New York, Washington, or any other major American city, would be so great as to be, apparently, unimaginable to us now. Which is why, perhaps, we have not even begun to think about marshaling the resources, concentration, deliberation, risk, sacrifice, and compromise necessary to avert them. This is the great decision to which the West is completely blind, and for neglect of which it will in the future grieve exceedingly.

Mr. Helprin, a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, is the author of, among other works, "Winter's Tale" (Harcourt) and "A Soldier of the Great War" (Harcourt).

About the Claremont Institute:

The mission of the Claremont Institute is to restore the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. These principles are expressed most eloquently in the Declaration of Independence, which proclaims that "all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights." To recover the founding principles in our political life means recovering a limited and accountable government that respects private property, promotes stable family life, and maintains a strong defense.

Founded in 1979, the Claremont Institute publishes the Claremont Review of Books, sponsors Publius and Lincoln Fellowships for rising young conservative leaders, and administers a variety of public policy programs, including Americans for Victory Over Terrorism, our Ballistic Missile Defense Project, the Center for Constitutional Jurisprudence, the Center for Local Government, and the Salvatori Center for the American Constitution.

Friday, December 19, 2008

What Technology Gives, Technology and Corruption Takes Away.

How much more rot and corruption is out there? For years the mantra was to let markets make the decisions and corrections. Did markets drive oil to $150 and down to close to $30 within months? How many companies have been raided and dismantled by nothing more than greed? Were the private equity guys any different from the boys in the hood stripping copper wires from vacant buildings?

Steady on, I fear there is worse ahead. 


Polaroid, Following Parent Company, Seeks Bankruptcy Protection

By Michael Bathon

Dec. 19 (Bloomberg) --

Polaroid, 2 1/2 months after the founder of its parent company was arrested on fraud charges, filed for bankruptcy protection from creditors.

The 70-year-old photography-film maker said it made the filing to “facilitate” its financial restructuring. The Minnetonka, Minnesota-based company didn’t list a range of assets or debt in Chapter 11 documents filed yesterday in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Minneapolis. Its parent, Petters Group Worldwide LLC, filed for bankruptcy on Oct. 11.

“The financial-structuring process and the bankruptcy filing are the result of events at Petters Group Worldwide, the company that has owned Polaroid since 2005,” Polaroid said in a statement distributed by PR Newswire yesterday.

Federal prosecutors accused Tom Petters, founder of the Petters Group, of leading a more than $2 billion fraud at the company. Petters Group was also indicted. Polaroid said it isn’t a target of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s probe.

Lorrie Parent, a Polaroid spokeswoman, didn’t immediately return a call for comment left after business hours.

Petters resigned as Petters Group chief executive officer Sept. 29 after the FBI received information that at least 20 investors may have been victims of a lending scam and raided the company’s Minnetonka headquarters. Petters has been jailed since his arrest on Oct. 3.

“Polaroid has entered bankruptcy with ample cash reserves sufficient to finance the company’s reorganization,” it said in the statement. “The company has not sought, nor does it expect to seek additional debtor-in-possession financing.”

Court-Appointed Receiver

The case was filed by Douglas A. Kelley, Petters Group’s court-appointed receiver. Kelley put Petters Group into bankruptcy after a judge ordered its assets to be frozen.

Sun Country Airlines Inc., another unit of Petters Group Worldwide, sought bankruptcy protection Oct.6 for the second time in seven years. Sun Country said it filed for protection from creditors because of the raid on Petters Group and to retain control of its assets rather than have them frozen and under a receiver’s control. The company said its assets and debt are each less than $100 million.

Sun Country said its 20 largest creditors without collateral backing their claims are owed about $256.8 million. Petters Capital LLC is listed as the largest unsecured creditor, with a claim of $184 million.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Disdain and Disrespect

Now that pardons are in the news, I would also like to ask for a pardon:

I beg your pardon but I have no sympathy for young John Walker Lindh, the American Taliban swept off the battle field in Afghanistan. He was sentenced to 20 years and now after serving seven, would like a Presidential pardon. Let him stay in jail and serve the full term. Being young and foolish is no excuse for taking up arms against your own country and especially on behalf of such vile company as he kept.

Mr. Muntadhar al-Zeidi, the shoe thrower who had the nerve to assault the President of the United States would also like to be pardoned for his "ugly deed." I'm sure he would. There's no question that instead of spending the next two years in jail, he rather be free and enjoying his new found celebrity in the Arab world.

BAGHDAD – The Iraqi journalist who hurled his shoes at President George W. Bush is begging for a pardon for what he described as "an ugly act," the prime minister's spokesman said Thursday.

Muntadhar al-Zeidi, a correspondent for an Iraqi-owned television station based in Cairo, Egypt, could face two years imprisonment for insulting a foreign leader. He remained in custody Thursday night.

"It is too late to reverse the big and ugly act that I perpetrated," al-Zeidi wrote in a letter delivered to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, according to the prime minister's spokesman.

The spokesman, Yassin Majid, told The Associated Press that al-Zeidi went on in the letter to recall an interview he conducted with the prime minister in 2005 when al-Maliki invited him into his home, saying: "Come in, it is your home too."

"So I ask for your pardon, excellency," Majid quoted the letter as saying.

However, the journalist's brother, Dhargham al-Zeidi, told the AP he was skeptical that his brother would write such a letter.

"I am suspicious that my brother wrote that letter to al-Maliki because I know my brother very well," he said. He added that family members and staffers from Al-Baghdadia would stage a sit-in Friday near the U.S.-controlled Green Zone.

Obviously this is a matter of Iraqi law but if the Iraqis are smart, they will make sure that Mr. al-Zeidi's act does not go unpunished. Granting a pardon or not prosecuting to the fullest extent of the law would send a message that I suspect would not sit well with the majority of the American public. As we know, showing someone the sole of your shoe or throwing your shoes at someone is a common symbol of Arab disdain and disrespect. More than that, throwing a size 10 shoe is equivalent to throwing a punch or wielding a club. It's assault. And in this case, it was an assault on the President. Many of us would also view not prosecuting the perpetrator as disdain and disrespect. The Iraqis ought to consider this carefully as many US citizens are ready to wash their hands of a people they view as unappreciative and unworthy.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Madoff and Fairfield Greenwich Advisors - $7.5 Billion!

Fairfield Greenwich Advisors
An investment management firm

More than half of Fairfield Greenwich's $14.1 billion in assets under management, or about $7.5 billion was connected to Madoff.

This is from their web site and what they claim as their due diligence efforts:

FGG's due diligence process is deeper and broader than a typical Fund of Funds, resembling that of an asset management company acquiring another asset manager, rather than a passive investor entering a disposable investment.

A number of areas of inquiry are examined by a team of FGG professionals who specialize in evaluating respective areas of risk. Typically, a manager has been investigated and monitored for six to 12 months before that firm can be accepted onto the FGG platform. Long negotiating periods enable FGG to be more confident of its decisions before proceeding with a manager. Areas of examination are centered around the following:

1. Portfolio Evaluation, Investment Performance, and Financial Risks:

A core area for further analysis is to attempt to dissect and further understand investment performance, how a manager generates alpha, and what risks are taken in doing so. As portfolio management and risk management incorporate elements of both art and science, FGG applies both qualitative and quantitative measures. FGG:

  • Examines independent prime broker trading records
  • Conducts detailed interviews to better understand the manager's methodology for forming a market view, and for selecting and exiting core position
  • Analyses trading records
  • Conducts a number of qualitative and quantitative tests to determine adherence to risk limits over time
  • Confirms portfolio loss risk controls, diversification and other risk-related control policies, as well as any experience regarding unexpected or extreme market events
  • Reviews the risk and return factors inherent in the strategy
  • Evaluates capacity issues, which may affect alpha, as well as expected opportunities going forward within each candidate's strategy
  • Analyses the various drivers underlying a particular portfolio's risk
  • Evaluates credit risk and market risk both at the instrument and portfolio level
  • Assesses the extent to which leverage is used by a manager, as well as how it is used, the funding sources, and the impact on the risk profile of the fund
  • Investigate whether or not private or special registration securities are held, and determine how the daily trading volume and inventory held compares to the float and/or daily trading volume for a given security
FGG also conducts many quantitative reviews of investment performance in light of:

  • Fees and fee structure
  • Historical draw-downs
  • Return volatility
  • Commissions earned
  • Performance return in calm versus volatile markets
  • Current/historical correlation of the fund under consideration with standard industry benchmarks, peer groups, and other FGG or competitor funds used as benchmarks
FGG attempts to understand the return attribution for individual securities in the portfolio, and conducts a full suite of VaR analyses and stress tests to model the loss distribution function under extreme market scenarios. Leverage, concentration limits, and long/short exposures are examined over time to assess whether they have remained within operating guidelines.

Style fidelity is another key area of inquiry; the manager's trading pattern over time and through various market environments, FGG determines whether the manager is prone to trade outside of their area of expertise.

2. Personal Background Investigation:

FGG examines the abilities and personalities of the individuals involved in managing the fund through extensive interviews, as well as background investigations.
FGG verifies:
  • Education
  • Personal credit standing
  • Litigation and regulatory background
  • Track record
  • Other indicators

FGG explores the manager's experience and qualifications relative to the strategy being managed. Prior professional associations of a manager's key personnel can be crucial in understanding a person's experience and character and how they run their investment management business.

3. Structural and Operational Risk:

"Operational risk" refers to the risk of loss resulting from inadequate or failed internal processes, human resources, or systems, or from external events. Operational failures, including misrepresentation of valuations and outright fraud, constitute the vast majority of instances where massive investor losses occur. Other operational risks include staff processing errors, technology failure, and poor data.

Pricing models, as well as the adequacy, independence, and transparency of valuation procedures, contingency plans, and other trading and settlement procedures are all matters for close scrutiny by FGG professionals.

FGG seeks a sound understanding of whether a hedge fund possesses key controls in the areas of portfolio management, conflicts of interest, segregation of duties, and compliance. FGG carefully assesses the controls and procedures that managers have in place and seek to determine actual compliance with those procedures, often suggesting modifications, separations of responsibilities, and remedial staff additions.

4. Legal, Compliance, and Regulatory Risk:

FGG's legal, compliance, and accounting teams specialize in investment management regulation, securities compliance, corporate operations, and tax issues. Hedge fund managers function within an ever more complex legal and regulatory landscape, and the role of this part of the diligence exam is to determine the seriousness of any deficiencies in this area which may cause risk of sanction, loss, or reputational embarrassment.

Both in-house and retained legal professionals interview the management and staff of the manager, research regulatory filings, and review corporate organizational documents, as well as fund memoranda and related material contracts.