September 7, 2012

Posted by orrinj at 9:29 PM


Amazon Stirs Up a Price War (GREG BENSINGER, 9/07/12, WSJ) Inc. kindled a price war in the tablet-computer market, unveiling a new slate of the devices that pack in more features at lower prices than Apple Inc.'s dominant iPad. . [...]

Mr. Bezos rubbed in the price contrast by debuting a $49.99 annual data package for the Kindle Fire that includes 250 megabytes per month. A similar data plan for the iPad starts at $14.99 a month, or about $180 a year.

That means consumers with a new 4G Kindle Fire will snag "more than $400 in year-one savings" versus an iPad, said Mr. Bezos.

Posted by orrinj at 9:22 PM


Obama fails in Charlotte, revealingly (Michael Gerson, September 7, 2012, Washington Post)

Obama made almost no mention of the continuing jobs crisis. He offered nothing new or creative on a fiscal and debt crisis that undermines economic confidence. Much of Obama's agenda -- lowering tuition costs, recruiting math and science teachers, "long-lasting batteries" -- sounded like a seventh-year State of the Union address, a collection of policy leavings and leftovers. One of Obama's more ardent defenders called this a "return to normalcy after a long period of emergency." And so Obama has gone in four years from being compared to Abraham Lincoln to carrying forward the legacy of Warren Harding.

The president's convention speech was defiantly complacent. He assumes that Americans already recognize and trust his good judgment -- why argue for the obvious? And aren't his opponents just unreasonable extremists anyway? All Americans need now is a little hope, a little faith. But hope and faith in what?

Perhaps the most revealing moment of Obama's speech came toward the end. "The times have changed, and so have I," he said. "I'm no longer just a candidate. I'm the president." His policies may be humble, but his ultimate appeal is not. Obamaism has never primarily been a plan; it is a man.

In 2012, however, the times have changed. The man has a record he must somehow explain.

Posted by orrinj at 9:20 PM


HOW CULTURE DROVE HUMAN EVOLUTION : A Conversation with Joseph Henrich [Edge, 9.4.12] 

The main questions I've been asking myself over the last couple years are broadly about how culture drove human evolution. Think back to when humans first got the capacity for cumulative cultural evolution--and by this I mean the ability for ideas to accumulate over generations, to get an increasingly complex tool starting from something simple. One generation adds a few things to it, the next generation adds a few more things, and the next generation, until it's so complex that no one in the first generation could have invented it. This was a really important line in human evolution, and we've begun to pursue this idea called the cultural brain hypothesis--this is the idea that the real driver in the expansion of human brains was this growing cumulative body of cultural information, so that what our brains increasingly got good at was the ability to acquire information, store, process and retransmit this non genetic body of information.

I think, therefore I evolve.

Posted by orrinj at 9:17 PM


Sorry, Obama's Convention Speech Was a Depressing Mess  (Timothy Noah, September 7, 2012, New Republic)

Watching President Obama give his nomination speech last night, it occurred to me for the first time that he might actually lose. [...]

[I]t wasn't pleasant hearing Obama talk, in his nomination speech, about how hard it's going to be:

I won't pretend the path I'm offering is quick or easy. I never have. You didn't elect me to tell you what you wanted to hear. You elected me to tell you the truth. And the truth is, it will take more than a few years for us to solve challenges that have built up over decades. It will require common effort, shared responsibility, and the kind of bold, persistent experimentation that Franklin Roosevelt pursued during the only crisis worse than this one. And by the way--those of us who carry on his party's legacy should remember that not every problem can be remedied with another government program or dictate from Washington.

We're dangerously close to Jimmy Carter territory here. First, there's the boast ("You elected me to tell you the truth") disguised as an expression of humility ("I won't pretend the path I'm offering is quick or easy"). Later, I actually winced when Obama humblebragged, "And while I'm very proud of what we've achieved together, I'm far more mindful of my own failings, knowing exactly what Lincoln meant when he said, 'I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go.'" Just because our greatest president was a bit depressive, that doesn't mean we want the present one to lacerate himself over his failures, and we certainly don't want to hear him tell us about it. The mention of FDR only served to remind us of how different, temperamentally, Obama is from the Democratic party's "happy warrior" tradition. Worst of all, though, was Obama's statement that "not every problem can be remedied with another government program or dictate from Washington." It combined an opportunistic (and probably insincere) echo of Bill Clintons irritating pronouncement in 1996 that "the era of big government is over" (which wasn't even true) with a hint of Jimmy Carter's "malaise" speech assertion that the country's crisis of confidence was too big a problem for a president to solve on his own. Even when it's true that the fault lies in our selves, not in our stars, who wants to hear it from the country's biggest star?

Posted by orrinj at 4:59 PM


We spend $750 billion on unnecessary health care. Two charts explain why. (Sarah Kliff, September 7, 2012, Washington Post)

America spent $2.6 trillion on health care last year; about one in every six dollars went into the health-care system. A third of that spending -- a full $750 billion -- did nothing to make anyone healthier.

That's the big takeaway from an Institute of Medicine report out Thursday, which looks at our big health-care spending problem.

Posted by orrinj at 5:09 AM


...that in an election between two ciphers the most important speeches were not by the candidates, but by Clint Eastwood, who provided the lasting image of the UR as emptiness, and by Bill Clinton, who reminded us of all that the UR is not.
Posted by orrinj at 5:02 AM


Behind the Enthusiasm Gap, a War-Weary Obama? (Garance Franke-Ruta, 9/06/12, The Atlantic)

Barack Obama will never be that man again. Whoever he was in 2008, and 2004, Barack Obama will never have his easy swagger and rambunctiously playful enthusiasm. "I recognize that times have changed since I first spoke to this convention," Obama told the thickly-packed crowd at the Time Warner Arena. "The times have changed -- and so have I."

That is the truth at the core of his oddly flat convention speech, and at the center of his technically skilled but strangely bloodless reelection campaign. Whoever Obama was when he was elected president has been seared away by two active wars, the more free-ranging fight against al-Qaeda, the worst economic crash since the Great Depression, and the endless grinding fights with Washington Republicans -- and even, I am sure, activists in his own party.

[H]e didn't sound hopeful. He sounded worn out, maybe a little sad, keenly aware of all that was undone, singed by the clamorous voices of an America in need and the devastating toll of two wars on troops whose injuries he, as commander-in-chief, can too clearly see. Rather than the bearer of hopes, he sounded like a man looking for reasons to hope.

Abandon hope all ye who enter here.

Posted by orrinj at 4:55 AM


The Gun and the Cross. The religion of America in John Ford, Mitt Romney and Clint Eastwood (SELINA O'GRADY, 7 September 2012, Open Democracy)

Mormonism  sacralised America - that is why Harold Bloom, the famously high-brow Eng Lit professor, considers its visionary founder, Joseph Smith, to equal in imaginative power to Melville or Whitman. The broader sacred mission, however, was embodied in the cowboy. He is the pioneering independent spirit who brings justice, law and order, just as Aeneas did in the Roman Empire's great founding myth the Aeneid.  

Mormon and cowboy myths are married in the film Wagonmaster by John Ford (who is mystifyingly revered by the French Nouvelle Vague and their successors). The film is about the Mormon leader Elder Wiggs,  who leads a small group of followers through the Wild West to set up his own version of 'a city upon a hill' in Utah. 'God has reserved for us a promised land' he tells a horse trader on the wagon trail. As the film ends, that tinny triumphalist music of Westerns blares out, and Ford's large expressionist shots of couples smiling and embracing as they ride their wagons into the new settlement are intercut with shots of the folk dancing. A new community, a vision realized. It is genuinely moving.  I caught a friend of mine - the quintessence of anti-patriotism - smiling   as he watched. 

This is a vision of one's nation as we might all like to have it - a community bound together by courage, the love of freedom, the love of each other based on the love of family. America is the elected nation, its people have a destiny, they are the chosen people. 

For all our queasiness at the Romney speech and distaste for jingoism, we in Britain have regret and disquiet over the sense that our society is disintegrating.  Our tax-avoiding rich and our disaffected underclass alike seem to have opted out of the idea that they are contributors in the joint enterprise of creating a good society. 

So what then is wrong with the John Ford ending or the conclusion to Mitt Romney's speech in which he sounded like a new Isaiah as he expounded his  ecstatic vision of a golden America of the past which will be recreated by him in  the future?  

The problem is the violence on which that vision is based. 

Before John Ford's glorious finale there is this less palatable scene: a band of outlaws shoot and kill one of the Mormon pioneers. In return one of the Mormon wagoners shoots virtually  the entire band. When the leader of the Mormons berates him for having acted contrarily to his own dictum that he never draws his gun on a man, the wagoner replies "I don't draw on men, only on snakes', and then he hurls the gun into the desert. 

This is not just  the neocon way of doing things, but the inevitable behaviour of an empire.  Force first, dehumanise your opponent (remember, they are snakes), then throw away the gun, and establish law and order. Force - massacres if necessary - is justifiable because of the end result, the supposed establishment of law and order. Violence is thus dressed up in the language of moral righteousness.

...that establishing law and order is worth the violence it requires are those who live where law and order has already been established violently.  Meanwhile, what kind of person is friends with an anti-patriot in any Anglospheric state?

Posted by orrinj at 4:51 AM


Syria's dismemberment: fulfilling the French Mandate's vision? (DAWN CHATTY , 4 September 2012, Open Democracy)

At the end of World War I, the spoils of the Middle East went to the victorious Allies, England and France. Two secret agreements concluded several years before were to determine the shape of what was to become of the southern provinces of the defeated Ottoman Empire. The 1915/6 McMahon-Hussein Correspondence between the British High Commissioner in Egypt and the Sharif of Mecca promised the Arabs a state of their own in Arabia if they rose up and fought with the British to defeat the Ottomans.  A second agreement a few months later was signed by the French, British and Russians - the 1916 Sykes-Picot Accord. It provided for the carving up of the region into a French zone over Greater Syria (Bilad-al-Sham) and a British zone over Palestine, Mesopotamia and a Kurdish zone. It also gave Jerusalem to Russia on account of its special relationship with orthodox Christianity. The Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 put paid to Russian claims, but the rest of the Sykes-Picot Accords all came to be integrated into the Paris Peace Conference of 1920. It was a catastrophic outcome from the view point of the Arabs. Syria's dismemberment was just part of the story.

One might wonder how it was that a British General would conquer Damascus for the Allies, but then would end up handing it over to the French. It was the line in the sand from Acre in Palestine to Kirkuk in Mesopotamia that Sir Mark Sykes drew across a map as part of the Sykes-Picot Agreement which would determine that everything south of the line was British and everything north of it would be French. General Edmund Allenby would lead the victorious campaign in Palestine, taking Jerusalem for the Allies in December 1917 and then marching into Damascus on 1 October 1918 to be greeted by T.E. Laurence and a few days later Emir Faysal and his Arab nationalists forces. The Syrian National Congress would declare Emir Faysal King of Greater Syria. But General Allenby would have the difficult task of informing Faysal that, contrary to the McMahon Hussein Correspondence of 1915/6, Greater Syria would not be recognised as an Arab Kingdom, but would instead become a mandate of the French state. The Allies created the League of Nations which then endorsed the handing over of the mandate of Greater Syria to the French in 1920. The French then rather unceremoniously deposed King Faysal of Syria a few months on.

Wilson made the Arabs, Asians and Africans pay an intolerable cost for his League.

Posted by orrinj at 4:47 AM


Japan Shrinks : Many nations have aging populations, but none can quite match Japan. Its experience holds lessons for other countries as well as insights into the distinctiveness of Japanese society. (Nicholas Eberstadt, Spring 2012, Wilson Quarterly)

What will all of these unfolding demographic and familial changes mean for the Japan of 2040? A few of the most likely implications can be briefly itemized:

A looming old-age burden: Despite salutary trends in "healthy aging," Japan's extraordinary demographics can only mean that a rapidly growing share of the country's population will be frail in the years ahead--and that public pension allowances, health and medical services, and long-term care will be ever more pressing priorities for Japanese society. Not the least of the problems may concern Alzheimer's disease. A study commissioned by Alzheimer's Disease International suggests that, on current track, the prevalence of dementia in the Japanese population could rise to five percent by 2050--one person in 20. The caregiving implications of such an outcome are staggering--and given the coming erosion of the Japanese family, a steadily decreasing proportion of senior citizens will have children to turn to for support. Under such circumstances, an increase in long-term institutionalization among the elderly seems inescapable.

A new kind of childhood: In the recent past, children in Japan were plentiful, while elders (who could expect a measure of veneration) were scarce. But by most projections there will be three senior citizens in 2040 for every child under 15--an almost exact inversion of the ratio that existed as recently as 1975.

It is easy to imagine a Japan in which children--the country's link with its future--will become increasingly prized. It is also possible to envision a future in which Japanese boys and girls develop a pronounced sense of entitlement, much as China's rising generation of "little emperor" only-children have today, and regard their obligations and duties to their elders as increasingly onerous and optional. The hopes and expectations falling on this dwindling cadre of youth would be truly enormous--and for some fraction of the rising generation could amount to an unbearable pressure.

Japan is already witness to a worrisome rise in the number of what social scientists call NEET youth (not in education, employment, or training)--women and, more commonly, men who are, in effect, opting out of existing Japanese social arrangements. The pathological extreme of this phenomenon is the hikikomori--young adults who shut themselves off almost entirely by retreating into a friendless life of video games, the Internet, and manga (comics) in their parents' home. Hard data on the hikikomori are scarce, but Japanese experts guess that there are hundreds of thousands of them. Suffice it to say that childhood and young adulthood in the Japan of the future will be different--and in some ways, perhaps more difficult than ever before.

A struggle to maintain economic growth:In the aftermath of two "lost decades" of meager growth, a world economic crisis, and a devastating tsunami, the Japanese economy faces a future in which simply sustaining growth will be an increasing challenge. The working-age population is set to shrink by 30 percent over the next three decades, and even if older Japanese take up some of the slack, the country's work force will almost surely be much smaller than it is today. Extreme population aging, for its part, stands to place mounting downward pressure on the nation's savings rate--and thus, other things being equal, on investment.

Ballooning debt obligations will compound the demographic pressures on economic performance. Thanks in part to its approach to financing programs for the aged, Japan already has the highest ratio of gross public debt to gross domestic product (well over 200 percent) of the developed nations. Projections by researchers at the Bank for International Settlements imply that this ratio could rise to a mind-boggling 600 percent by 2040. (Greece's public debt, by contrast, amounted to about 130 percent of its GDP at the start of its current default drama.) While Japan might well be able to service such a mountain of debt without risk of sovereign default (assuming the country's low-interest-rate environment continues to hold), it is hard to see how a recipe for rapid or even moderate economic growth could be cooked up with these ingredients.

Even so, from a purely arithmetic standpoint, a country with a shrinking population--and even a shrinking GDP--could theoretically enjoy steady improvements in personal income and living standards. Japan does possess a number of options for enhancing economic growth. Significantly, it has built a generally strong educational system, and efforts to increase attainment (including implementation of a genuine lifelong approach to education and training) could tangibly increase labor productivity. Japan is also a world leader in research, development, and "knowledge production." Strengthening these capacities and applying technological advances and breakthroughs throughout the national economy could stimulate growth. And as the healthiest people on the planet, the Japanese have untapped possibilities for augmenting their future labor force by extending working life. Finally, far-reaching structural reform of the economy--long hobbled by a dysfunctional financial and banking sector and other ills--could significantly brighten the prospects for long-term growth. Seizing these opportunities, however, will require widespread determination to chart a sharp change of economic course on the part of Japan's political leadership and an aging electorate that may be increasingly risk-averse.

A less crowded, "greener" Japan: Japan's impending depopulation may have its upsides. With the emptying of the countryside, for example, the nation will have more living space and arable land per person than it does today. Given the country's ongoing improvements in energy efficiency and environmental technologies, depopulation could coincide with an improvement in natural amenities and (by at least some criteria) quality of life. Further, thanks to environment-friendly technological advances and, however unintended, slow economic growth, Japan may emerge as a world leader in reducing emissions of greenhouse gases.

Diminishing international influence: Demographic trends have created powerful pressures for a smaller Japanese role in world affairs in coming decades. The country's share of world economic output--and its international economic influence--should be expected to decline, perhaps considerably. Prospective trends in military-age manpower tell a similar story. Thirty years ago, Japan was the world's seventh most populous country. Thirty years hence it likely will be down to number 15, surpassed by Egypt and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, among others.
It is true that Japan's biggest neighbors, China and Russia, have demographic clouds on their horizons as well. And Japan's potential for self-defense is far greater than its current capacities (many of them shaped by self-imposed restrictions) suggest. Even if it becomes more assertive of its national interests, however, this maritime power, like others before it, may continue to rely heavily on international alliances to protect its national security. Japan may need international friends and allies in the years ahead even more than it does now. Japanese policymakers will be well advised to think about what their aging, depopulating nation can offer such prospective partners.

A potentially pivotal role for migration: Migration is something of a wild card in the country's future. In light of Japan's long-standing sensitivity to the "otherness" of gaijin (non-Japanese), immigration to Japan has been strikingly limited, assimilation of newcomers even more so. (To put the situation in perspective: In 2009 Japan naturalized barely a third as many new citizens as Switzerland, a country with a population only six percent the size of Japan's and a reputation of its own for standoffishness.) All the same, Japan is an increasingly cosmopolitan country, and the Japanese are enthusiastic tourists and international travelers. It is not impossible that attitudes toward the importation of foreign labor could change in the face of demographic pressures.
No less intriguing, however, is the proposition that Japan might turn out to be a major supplier of emigrants to the rest of the world. Given the cost and care outlook for their aging population, the Japanese might, for example, establish health care "colonies" in places such as India or the Philippines, spots where large populations of elderly Japanese could enjoy a good quality of life or receive necessary treatment and support at a fraction of what they would cost at home. Younger Japanese, for their part, might find it increasingly attractive to venture overseas in search of opportunity if the alternative were perceived to be a limited future in a shrinking, dying Japan. More than one million Japanese were already estimated to reside abroad as of 2009.

Posted by orrinj at 4:40 AM


Africa's best time is ahead (Berhan Ahmed, 7 September 2012, Online Opinion) 

For the first time in history, African countries have enjoyed a period of strong and sustained growth. The booming African economy has transformed the prospects for ordinary Africans across the continent. According to The Economist, six of the fastest growing economies in the world - Angola, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Chad, Mozambique and Rwanda - are in Africa. Investment in Africa gives greater returns than in any other developing region of the world. The growth in Africa as a whole from 2000-2010 was a little behind Asia, but India and China account for most of that growth. During the next five years, economic growth in Africa is expected to outpace Asia, and it is expected to lead the world in economic growth for the next twenty years. Africa is not only riding a resources boom, but is also successfully building capacity in manufacturing, especially textiles and clothing, light industry, and some areas of export in agricultural products. The agricultural sector has also grown at a moderate rate and this growth has contributed significantly to a reduction in poverty for many African countries. Over the past ten years, overseas investment in Africa has grown from $9 billion to $67 billion. Australian companies have $20 billion invested in Africa, mostly in the mining sector, which is a substantial share of that total.

The popular perception of Africa has not caught up with that change. Many still see Africa as a giant cripple; a continent of cruel dictators and unstable governments; a continent over which the Four Horsemen of famine, plague, war and death range with unhindered rapacity. [...]

There is no doubt that this present African growth is being driven by China. This is a trickle-down effect that has been going on now for fifty years and is an example of how one economy can lead an entire continent. After the Second World War, high labour prices in the USA combined with technological innovation in Japan made the latter an economic powerhouse. Who could now believe that the term 'Made in Japan' was not so long ago a term for poor-quality, shoddy merchandise? When labour prices had risen in Japan, manufacturing flowed first to Korea, then after the instability of the Mao years to China, and more recently to Thailand. Now China is looking towards Africa. We, whose economy has been driven by China and Japan for sixty years, are now also looking the same way.