Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Republican Media Machine...

Here is an excellent article from The Guardian that lays out one major reason US politics is so out of whack with the rest of the western world. In a nutshell - we have an army of pundits with no respect for the truth or facts, who are paid to warp, spin, and twist anything they can into one-line misinformation. And they let them masquerade as journalists (or quasi-journalist talk-show hosts) while they do it.

One of my Scottish friends brought this to my attention - and expressed his incredulity as follows: "They let a JOURNALIST (not a politician or something) on CNN (which is the main, mainstream source of TV news in the US yeah) call a boring centrist politician like Obama a MARXIST? Do people get away with this kind of total nonesense regularly?"

In any case, here's the article:

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Biden the Ideal Choice for VP

This morning I received a 3am phone call from the Obama campaign - well, actually it was a text message - informing me that Senator Joe Biden, of Delaware, is now Obama's VP candidate. I could not be happier. Heck, I've wanted this ticket since the first Democratic Primary debate 16 months ago. So, keeping in mind my bias here, lets explore why Senator Biden is a brilliant choice.

(1) Experience: This is the most obvious advantage from picking Biden. Biden is the senior senator from Delaware, in the senate since 1973. He is every bit the "elder statesman" and has served as chairman (and ranking minority member in Republican years) of arguably the two most important Senate committees - the Judiciary Committee from 1981-1995 and the Foreign Relations Committee from 1997-2007. His record on both committees is prestigious, though not spotless. On the judiciary committee, he presided over the defeat of Robert Bork, and narrowly bungled the nomination of Clarence Thomas. Biden was a long-standing advocate of intervention in the Balkans, which became a hallmark success of the Clinton administration.

(2) Derailing the "straight-talk express": This is another obvious benefit to picking Biden. McCain has built a reputation over the past decade as a Washington reformer, as someone above partisan politics, who speaks to the people. The irony of this is that McCain's current campaign shows serious signs of flip-flopping on his past record in an effort to win over moderate voters, and a frightewning lack of knowledge about vital issues - notably the economy and environment. However, if there is any senator with a reputation for "speaking truth to power" that can match John McCain's pre-election reputation, it is Biden. Biden is well-known for his straight-shooting, sometimes blunt assessments of a situation, and for a wise-cracking sense of humor very akin to McCain's in many ways. True, this has gotten Biden into trouble in the past, but it does ensure that his statements are taken seriously by the media - and Obama's ability to draw subtle distinctions in a reasonable tone should help to defuse any tension it generates. At the same time, it means that Biden will not hesitate to attack McCain's flip-flopping in this campaign, or point out, in no uncertain terms, how and why the two candidates differ - and why Obama is the better choice.

(3) Connecting with Middle America: Here is another aspect of Biden's persona that helps shore up Obama's perceived weaknesses (though I, for one, think this perception is short-sighted spin). Biden, the son of a car salesman (born in Scranton, PA), is the least wealthy member of the Senate, commutes to work daily on Amtrak (a 90-min train ride each way, I checked), did not go to an Ivy-league school (alma maters: U of Delaware and Syracuse University), is Irish Catholic, and exudes down-to-earth common sense. Biden is someone who, for all his time in Washington, understands how most of the country lives. Oh, and did I mention that his son (Delaware's Attorney General and a Captain in the National Guard) is deploying to Iraq in October?

(4) Ideological Blend - Reinforcing the Message of Change: This is a less obvious parallel, one somewhat obscured by the media and McCain's spin. After all, Biden has been in the Senate for thirty-five years. But the question is not "how long" Biden has been in politics, but "what has he done?" The goal of the campaign is to change divisive politics, but that cannot be done without working with those who are already in politics. Joe Biden knows the people in Washington and has worked with them, but he has always done so in the spirit of meaningful change. This is a man who grew up in the 1960s Civil Rights movement. This is a man who sponsored and pushed through the Violence Against Women Act. Biden fought to bring Slobodam Milosovic to justice, to support independence and democracy in the Balkans - not as a false pretense, but as a fundamental goal. Biden represents a man who has fought, within Washington, for the change platform that Obama is campaigning on.

(5) Personality Blend - Working together in Office: In some ways, this may be the most important aspect here. How well will these two individuals work together, if they are elected? I think the answer has to be, very well. On the one hand there are the obvious agreements - Biden is a progressive Democrat who wants to bring opportunity to the middle class, who opposes the neoconservative "black and white" foreign policy of the past eight years. On the other hand, there is Biden's combative personality and sharp sense of humor. These are two men who can banter back-and-forth and establish a sincere working rapport, and will agree on our general goals. But, even given this rapport, Biden will insist that his views be heard and is not afraid to tell Obama: "Mr. President, you're wrong."

In short, the selection of Joe Biden is nothing short of brilliant. There is a deep synergy between these two candidates, they represent a team that complements each others strengths while shoring up each other's weaknesses. Biden is the pragmatic veteran warrior of change the Obama campaign needs. Finally, this is a ticket that can bring hope to America.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Bolivia: Morales's Victory

Here is an excellent article and analysis of Morales's decisive (62% of the vote), yet not overwhelming victory in the Bolivian referendum. He now has a clear mandate, but still has his work cut out for him in terms of land reform and nationalization, particularly in Santa Cruz (though he won over 40% of the vote there, surprisingly). The wealthy, predominantly white minority will continue to block moves by Morales to grant some measure of social progress and equity to the overwhelming, impoverished indigenous majority.

I'm not an expert on Bolivian politics, but suffice it to say claims that Morales is a "leftist" are overblown melodrama - yes, he favors state control over some aspects of the economy, especially natural resources and some financial services/heavy industry - but these are policies that have worked to generate government revenue and provided the impetus for industrialization in South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, China, and India. For that matter, land reform was a key aspect of generating an agricultural surplus in South Korea, Taiwan, and China as well.

Private enterprise is all well and good, but there needs to be sufficient government capital to provide social programs (e.g. education and basic health care) and public infrastructure. There also needs to be some sense of equal property distribution, at least to the point where there is enough demand to generate local consumption and ensure a market for locally-produced goods. Latin American Gini coefficients typically range from 0.6-0.7, compared with Asian and European Gini's in the 0.3-0.45 range (lower = more equal). Capitalism doesn't work without the prerequisites for a market, even neoliberals recognize that, and public control of commodities and finance can be an effective way of jump-starting industrial development - as the East Asian Miracle has demonstrated. Privatization, whether or not we like it, frequently needs to come later on in the process. Sometimes, what seems a "lefist" policy in an American context is simply pragmatic policy in another context (especially a development context).

Monday, August 11, 2008

Food Aid, Security, and Production

Here is an interesting article on food production patterns, development, and humanitarian food aid, courtesy of BBC: Just a brief commentary, below.

It's an interesting article, though it could be organized a little better (his metaphor with the second law is a bit forced). I think it should be pretty obvious that we should be using cash to purchase food locally to the greatest extent possible, so as to build local supply links - the problem is identifying the "greatest extent possible". At a certain point, either approach can radically distort supply/demand. Shipping in too much food gluts supply and creates informal markets for food aid, harming producers. By the same token, purchasing too much food decreases supply, and while it helps local producers with the surplus to sell (typically better-off anyway), it can spike the cost of purchasing food for consumers - even as some of that food is distributed to the "worst off". In a country where most of the population is fairly destitute, that can be a problem in itself.

My personal take is that these problems are really only solved by diversifying the labor base and moving up the value chain - which includes industrialization, though it would be nice if it was in a more eco-friendly and not debt-financed manner. That type of diversification is needed to generate the type of demand necessary for farmers to be financially sustainable - at least in the current environment. The rest is just an attempted band-aid on a structural problem: it can alleviate suffering, but doesn't address the root causes. Another thing that would be interesting to see is what would happen to global food chains if most/all countries were industrialized and diversified - would production diversify or become increasingly concentrated (probably depends on legal/political factors as much as economic, but still interesting).

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Halifax Initiative

Just a short post here - I recently discovered an extremely helpful source for progressive/alternative development information, through my work at the Bank Information Center. It's a Canadian coalition of civil-society organizations called the Halifax Initiative: