Wednesday, March 31, 2010
Monday, March 29, 2010
Sunday, March 28, 2010
THE “peripheral” economies of the European Union are all in trouble, it is said. So Europe’s “core” economies, especially in the euro-area heartland, must decide how to help colleagues teetering on the edge of both bankruptcy and the map—without wrecking the budget discipline needed to make the euro work. This week’s summit of EU leaders, which began after The Economist went to press, was due to be dominated by this debate, pitting Germany (the core of the core) against governments that believe a credible plan must be drawn up to help far-flung, spendthrift members of the club. The list starts with Greece. But there are worries ahead about Portugal, Spain and even Italy.
Talk of an ailing periphery has become so common in the EU that it takes a squint at a map to realise how odd (and revealing) it is. An outside observer might conclude that in the EU, a country’s economic might (and its credit rating) correlates with its distance from Brussels and Frankfurt. Yet this is not so. Finland is a euro-area country a long way from both cities that can raise ten-year government debt more cheaply than such core countries as France and Belgium.
In practice, talk of peripheral Europe is, deep down, a way of saying something quite different. When journalists, officials and politicians first began to use the phrase, it was shorthand for southern countries with worrying public finances, plus Ireland, also on the edge of the European map. Recently, though, Ireland has become a pin-up country, praised by senior officials and politicians for a stoical embrace of austerity after its property bubble burst. “Peripheral” is now no longer a shorthand term, but a euphemism for “southern”.
North-south divisions are hardly new in the EU. When the euro was planned in the 1990s many German politicians wanted a currency zone comprising only Germany, the Benelux countries and France. France wanted a bigger group, fearing that southern countries outside would devalue, as both Italy and Spain did in 1992-93, making French exports less competitive. But the Germans suspected France’s southern push had other goals: a monetary union likelier to tolerate both greater fiscal laxity and more political meddling.
In truth, Europe’s south is not a monolithic block. Charlemagne recently went to Portugal. Although it is under less pressure than Greece, Portugal’s credit rating was downgraded this week. It has a big budget deficit and deep structural problems (more than half of Portuguese adults left school at the minimum leaving age). Portugal suffered a shock when ex-communist countries joined the EU and lured multinational firms that liked cheap labour. Against that, Portugal has done more to trim its public sector than Greece and Spain and more to reform its pensions than Italy, and recently froze welfare spending until 2013.
In Lisbon memories are fresh of how northerners were “surprised” when Spain, Italy and Portugal met entry conditions for the single currency. Antonio Vitorino, a minister at the time, recalls a Dutch colleague frostily saying: “well, now you’ve qualified for the euro, you don’t need cohesion funds [ie, EU regional help] any more.” Yet Portugal did not do its homework to prepare for euro entry, says Mr Vitorino. After qualifying for low German interest rates overnight, citizens entered a spiral of private debt. Nor did Portugal reform its labour markets. “We all knew from 1999 that there could be asymmetric shocks in the euro zone,” says Mr Vitorino, later an EU justice commissioner. But Germany “refused to discuss” the strains that might be caused by differing levels of economic development.
Today’s north-south divisions are sharper, more populist, and carry greater risks. It is no political mystery why the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has taken such a hard line on a Greek bail-out and hinted that the worst-behaved countries should face expulsion from the euro. German voters are strongly opposed to paying for Greece to avoid default, and Germany’s constitution also sets legal hurdles to any bail-out that might threaten the euro’s stability.
In politics arguments have special force when they are easy to grasp and reflect long-held prejudices. The German debate on Greece has been shaped by the fact that some Greeks can retire ten years earlier than Germans, and by the statistical fraud carried out by previous Greek governments to disguise their budget deficit. From this, it is but a short step to German headlines calling Greeks “swindlers in the euro zone” (triggering Greek headlines about Nazi crimes and gold-pinching in the second world war).
Such name-calling ignores the human complexity of Europe. Greece has been badly governed for years, with successive governments handing out jobs for life, early retirement and lucrative contracts. But such clientelism came about partly because the country was harshly ruled for many years. Socialist rulers expanded the public sector in the 1980s partly to bring leftist citizens back into the mainstream after decades of exclusion and repression by the right. Jobs for life were granted partly to stop new governments sacking their predecessor’s favourites.
Such history matters. From the north, southerners handed jobs for life by political patrons look privileged. From the south, those public-sector workers feel more like victims, whose low-paid jobs are just compensation for past ills. (Portugal’s public sector grew partly to absorb 800,000 citizens who arrived after its colonial empire collapsed in 1974.)
Europe is going to need more empathy if the euro is to hold together. The hard work of returning to true convergence will be impossible without voters’ consent. As Europe faces that task, no economy, north or south, can be considered peripheral.
from The Economist
I admit it: I had fun watching right-wingers go wild as health reform finally became law. But a few days later, it doesn’t seem quite as entertaining — and not just because of the wave of vandalism and threats aimed at Democratic lawmakers. For if you care about America’s future, you can’t be happy as extremists take full control of one of our two great political parties.
To be sure, it was enjoyable watching Representative Devin Nunes, a Republican of California, warn that by passing health reform, Democrats “will finally lay the cornerstone of their socialist utopia on the backs of the American people.” Gosh, that sounds uncomfortable. And it’s been a hoot watching Mitt Romney squirm as he tries to distance himself from a plan that, as he knows full well, is nearly identical to the reform he himself pushed through as governor of Massachusetts. His best shot was declaring that enacting reform was an “unconscionable abuse of power,” a “historic usurpation of the legislative process” — presumably because the legislative process isn’t supposed to include things like “votes” in which the majority prevails.
A side observation: one Republican talking point has been that Democrats had no right to pass a bill facing overwhelming public disapproval. As it happens, the Constitution says nothing about opinion polls trumping the right and duty of elected officials to make decisions based on what they perceive as the merits. But in any case, the message from the polls is much more ambiguous than opponents of reform claim: While many Americans disapprove of Obamacare, a significant number do so because they feel that it doesn’t go far enough. And a Gallup poll taken after health reform’s enactment showed the public, by a modest but significant margin, seeming pleased that it passed.
But back to the main theme. What has been really striking has been the eliminationist rhetoric of the G.O.P., coming not from some radical fringe but from the party’s leaders. John Boehner, the House minority leader, declared that the passage of health reform was “Armageddon.” The Republican National Committee put out a fund-raising appeal that included a picture of Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, surrounded by flames, while the committee’s chairman declared that it was time to put Ms. Pelosi on “the firing line.” And Sarah Palin put out a map literally putting Democratic lawmakers in the cross hairs of a rifle sight.
All of this goes far beyond politics as usual. Democrats had a lot of harsh things to say about former President George W. Bush — but you’ll search in vain for anything comparably menacing, anything that even hinted at an appeal to violence, from members of Congress, let alone senior party officials.
No, to find anything like what we’re seeing now you have to go back to the last time a Democrat was president. Like President Obama, Bill Clinton faced a G.O.P. that denied his legitimacy — Dick Armey, the second-ranking House Republican (and now a Tea Party leader) referred to him as “your president.” Threats were common: President Clinton, declared Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, “better watch out if he comes down here. He’d better have a bodyguard.” (Helms later expressed regrets over the remark — but only after a media firestorm.) And once they controlled Congress, Republicans tried to govern as if they held the White House, too, eventually shutting down the federal government in an attempt to bully Mr. Clinton into submission.
Mr. Obama seems to have sincerely believed that he would face a different reception. And he made a real try at bipartisanship, nearly losing his chance at health reform by frittering away months in a vain attempt to get a few Republicans on board. At this point, however, it’s clear that any Democratic president will face total opposition from a Republican Party that is completely dominated by right-wing extremists.
For today’s G.O.P. is, fully and finally, the party of Ronald Reagan — not Reagan the pragmatic politician, who could and did strike deals with Democrats, but Reagan the antigovernment fanatic, who warned that Medicare would destroy American freedom. It’s a party that sees modest efforts to improve Americans’ economic and health security not merely as unwise, but as monstrous. It’s a party in which paranoid fantasies about the other side — Obama is a socialist, Democrats have totalitarian ambitions — are mainstream. And, as a result, it’s a party that fundamentally doesn’t accept anyone else’s right to govern.
In the short run, Republican extremism may be good for Democrats, to the extent that it prompts a voter backlash. But in the long run, it’s a very bad thing for America. We need to have two reasonable, rational parties in this country. And right now we don’t.
Friday, March 26, 2010
FOR the evolutionarily minded, the existence of fairness is a puzzle. What biological advantage accrues to those who behave in a trusting and co-operative way with unrelated individuals? And when those encounters are one-off events with strangers it is even harder to explain why humans do not choose to behave selfishly. The standard answer is that people are born with an innate social psychology that is calibrated to the lives of their ancestors in the small-scale societies of the Palaeolithic. Fairness, in other words, is an evolutionary hangover from a time when most human relationships were with relatives with whom one shared a genetic interest and who it was generally, therefore, pointless to cheat.
The problem with this idea is that the concept of fairness varies a lot, depending on which society it happens to come from—something that does not sit well with the idea that it is an evolved psychological tool. Another suggestion, then, is that fairness is a social construct that emerged recently in response to cultural changes such as the development of trade. It may also, some suggest, be bound up with the rise of organised religion.
Joseph Henrich at the University of British Columbia and his colleagues wanted to test these conflicting hypotheses. They reasoned that if notions of fairness are, indeed, calibrated to the Palaeolithic, then any variation from place to place should be random. If such notions are cultural artefacts, though, they will vary systematically with some aspect of society. In a study just published in Science, Dr Henrich and his team looked at the relationship between notions of fairness and two social phenomena: the degree to which a society is economically integrated and how religious the individuals within it are.
To do the study Dr Henrich recruited 2,148 volunteers from 15 contemporary, small-scale societies. The societies in question included the Dolgan (hunters in Siberia), the Hadza (foraging nomads in Tanzania) and the Sanquianga (fishermen in Colombia).
First, the volunteers were asked to play a series of games that would measure their notions of fairness. One of these is called the dictator game. In it, two players (who do not actually meet) are given a sum of money. One of them then divides the money and gives whatever fraction he chooses to the other. Not much of a game, perhaps, but it provides a good measure of the first player’s sense of fairness, since he has the power to be as unfair as he likes.
Another game the researchers asked participants to play was more subtle. In it, the second player has the opportunity to reject the sum offered by the first, in which case neither player receives anything. In this version, however, the second player must decide what offer he would accept (within a 10% margin of error), and do so before he hears what the offer actually is. That provides a measure of willingness to punish, even at a cost to the punisher. Yet another game looked at interactions with third parties.
Having established prevailing notions of fairness in each of the societies they were examining, the researchers then calculated a measure of that society’s market integration. They arrived at this by working out the percentage of a household’s total calories that were purchased from the market, as opposed to being grown, hunted or fished. The volunteers were also asked whether they participated in a world religion (rather than a tribal one).
The results back a cultural explanation of fairness—or, at least, of the variable levels of fairness found in different societies. In fact, those societies that most resemble the anthropological consensus of what Palaeolithic life would have been like (hunting and gathering, with only a modicum of trade) were the ones where fairness seemed to count least. People living in communities that lack market integration display relatively little concern with fairness or with punishing unfairness in transactions. Notions of fairness increase steadily as societies achieve greater market integration (see chart). People from better-integrated societies are also more likely to punish those who do not play fair, even when this is costly to themselves.
For progressives, this finding brings great comfort. It suggests that people are, if not perfectible, at least morally malleable in positive ways. If economic integration is the driving force for fairness then it may make sense to view it as something like a type of technology. As societies have become more complex, those that have developed systems of sanitation, transport, energy and so on have been more successful than those which have not. It may be that the notion of fair play is an intangible equivalent of these systems.
Dr Henrich also, however, found that the sense of fairness in a society was linked to the degree of its participation in a world religion. Participation in such religion led to offers in the dictator game that were up to 10 percentage points higher than those of non-participants.
World religions such as Christianity, with their moral codes, their omniscient, judgmental gods and their beliefs in heaven and hell, might indeed be expected to enforce notions of fairness on their participants, so this observation makes sense. From an economic point of view, therefore, such judgmental religions are actually a progressive force. That might explain why many societies that have embraced them have been so successful, and thus why such beliefs become world religions in the first place.
Thursday, March 25, 2010
Sunday, March 21, 2010
A chronology of key events
1993 January - Independence after Czechoslovakia splits. Parliament elects Michal Kovac of the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (MDS) president. Vladimir Meciar, also of the MDS, is prime minister in coalition government.
1994 March - New coalition led by Jozef Moravcik of Democratic Union of Slovakia formed following no-confidence vote in Meciar government.
1994 December - Meciar heads another coalition following new elections.
1995 March - Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation with Hungary signed, guaranteeing the existing border and ethnic minority rights.
1995 November - New law restricting official use of any language other than Slovak gives rise to international condemnation.
1998 March - Constitutional stalemate as President Kovac ends term and parliament fails to agree on a successor. Prime Minister Meciar assumes presidential powers, prompting protest demonstrations and EU condemnation. He takes the opportunity to dismiss nearly half the country's ambassadors and overturn several Kovac decisions.
1998 June - Decision to start up first reactor at Mochovce nuclear plant not far from Austrian border angers Vienna.
1998 September/October - Meciar loses premiership following elections. Mikulas Dzurinda, heads new coalition, pledges to strengthen democracy and put Slovakia back on the road to European integration.
1999 January - Parliament ends nearly a year of constitutional crisis by passing a new law allowing for president to be directly elected by the people.
1999 May - Pro-Western candidate Rudolf Schuster wins country's first direct presidential elections.
1999 July - Parliament approves law to improve the status of minority languages.
2001 February - Parliament approves far reaching changes to the country's constitution, a key step towards gaining membership of the EU and Nato. The new constitution decentralises power in Slovakia, increases the authority of the state audit office, strengthens the independence of the judiciary and gives greater recognition to minority rights.
2002 January - Eight new regional parliaments created under amended constitution, one of the key requirements for EU entry.
2002 September - Mikulas Dzurinda wins second term as premier in a centre-right coalition government.
2002 December - EU summit in Copenhagen formally invites Slovakia to join in 2004.
2003 May - Slovaks vote in referendum in favour of EU membership. Turnout is just over the required 50 per cent.
2004 February - Police and troops brought in to end rioting by Romany population protesting against cuts in benefits in parts of eastern Slovakia.
2004 March - Slovakia admitted to Nato.
2004 April - Ivan Gasparovic elected president, defeating former Prime Minister Meciar in second round of voting.
2004 May - Slovakia is one of 10 new states to join the EU.
2005 May - Parliament ratifies EU constitution.
2005 November - Slovakia joins European Exchange Rate Mechanism, a significant step on the way to membership of the eurozone.
2006 January - Slovak military plane crashes in Hungary, killing 42 people.
2006 April - Floods as Danube bursts banks.
Court intervenes to end strike by doctors and nurses over pay and sell-offs in the healthcare sector.
2006 June-July - Left-wing opposition leader Robert Fico becomes prime minister in a coalition government with Vladimir Meciar's Movement for a Democratic Slovakia and a right-wing party.
2006 October - Robert Fico announces withdrawal of Slovakia's troops in Iraq by the end of 2007.
2007 November - Scandal involving land deals leads to firing of Farm Minister Miroslav Jurena and plunges the three-party ruling coalition into crisis.
Police seize enriched uranium that could be used for a ''dirty bomb'' and arrest two Hungarians and a Ukrainian.
2007 December - Slovakia withdraws its last troops from Iraq.
2008 July - EU gives formal approval for Slovakia to adopt the euro in January 2009.
2009 January - Slovakia adopts the euro.
2009 April - Ivan Gasparovic becomes first Slovak president to win re-election, defeating centre-right challenger Iveta Radicova in the second round of voting.
2009 July - Slovak parliament passes new language law allowing fines to be imposed for using a minority language in government buildings; Hungarian parliament issues a declaration condemning the law as discriminating against Slovakia's Hungarian minority.
Saturday, March 20, 2010
Thursday, March 18, 2010
Tuesday, March 16, 2010
a plump sack. That night
I bled for hours, like a dumb animal.
The evening news: Mother’s doing fine today.
By Wednesday, I could smell the body from the porch.
I couldn’t make myself not look.
First the flies on its brown eyes,
then the mice in its tapering ribs.
Soon it looked like the remains of a fish,
a furry scalp, a plush dead thing.
I drank lemonade and gin in the shade
as the neighbor’s cat stalked the bossy blue jays.
(Mothers, in this case.)
They kept up the noise for hours.
Last night it was just a skeleton,
light enough to be lifted by the wind.
Wednesday, March 10, 2010
Tuesday, March 09, 2010
In my Reflection of January 14
“The head of our medical brigade has informed that ‘the situation is difficult but we are already saving lives.’”
Hour after hour
The situation was far more serious than was originally thought. Tens of thousands of injured were clamoring for help in the streets of
Some UN officials were trapped in their dormitories and tens of lives were lost
The catastrophe shocked the whole world
In conformity with the position publicly announced by
Nor was that government capable of understanding that our country does not need to beg for favors or forgiveness of those who
Such have been the principles characterizing the ethical behavior of our people. Together with its equanimity and firmness
In the aftermath of the tragedy
There are more than one hundred thousand deadly victims. A high number of citizens have lost their arms or legs
Eighty per cent of the country needs to be rebuilt.
In the midst of the Haitian tragedy
Several governments have complained that their aircraft have not been allowed to land in order to deliver the human and technical resources that have been sent to
Our country is accomplishing a strictly humanitarian mission. To the extent of its possibilities
Any significant cooperation that is offered to our country will not be rejected
It is only fair to state that
We send doctors, not soldiers!
Fidel Castro Ruz
Wednesday, March 03, 2010
Just when the Tea Party movement appeared to be spreading across the US, a radically different vision of America has emerged, courtesy of Facebook.
Its title might not be imaginative, but the Coffee Party USA is making waves. In just a month its Facebook page has acquired more than 50,000 fans; and supporters of this left-of-centre alternative were logging their interest at a rate of a thousand an hour today.
On the face of it, the rivals share features beyond their beverage titles: offspring of social networking websites; self-consciously harnessing energy unleashed by populist frustrations with the political establishment; and strong views on the nature and role of government.
There the similarity ends. The Coffee Party crowd believe government is not an enemy of the people but the voice of the people. Annabel Park, a documentary filmmaker who started up the Facebook page from Silver Spring, Maryland, said: "We want to see people representing us moving towards solutions to problems rather than strategically obstructing any form of progress." In a video on www.coffeepartyusa.org (motto: wake up and stand up) she says she decided to act after "listening to news coverage that made it seem the Tea Party was representative of America. I completely disagree with this."movement, it is clearly adopting a pro-Obama stance in contrast to relentless and often virulent opposition extended to the president
Though she wants the phenomenon to be seen as a bottom-up movement, it is clearly adopting a pro-Obama stance in contrast to relentless and often virulent opposition extended to the president by the opposition. . Park herself has campaigned with Asians for Obama and on behalf of the Democratic senator Jim Webb.
The Coffee Party is yet another example of the democratising potential of the internet . Over the past two years it has allowed the political energy to swing wildly between opposite ends of the spectrum to a degree and at a speed unthinkable in pre-digital times. At first Barack Obama appeared to have a dominant grip over theweb, using social networking to attract enormous financial and organisational support.
Barely had he been sworn into office, however, but the Tea Party activists grabbed the initiative and applied it to their own purposes. Now the Coffee Party is attempting to seize it back.
Like the Tea Party groups, it is using Facebook and Twitter to spread the word and to encourage individuals to form local outposts. Already some 45 Coffee Party chapters in at least 30 states have been set up, and meetings are being staged in several cities from Martinsville in Virginia, to Oak Ridge,Tennessee, and Los Angeles.
The coffee metaphor helps: "It's unfortunate that Tea is no longer soothing," posts one supporter on Twitter. "It now makes me tense."