Friday, July 27, 2012

"Find a happy place, find a happy place!"

Would you believe that sometimes I don't want to talk about politics or policy?  Sometimes I want to indulge my secret obsession with design and color, or watch mindless television.  I don't get too many of those opportunities, so I want to enjoy them when they come up.  But...

Last week I took out three books from the library on small apartment living.  One book focused mostly on apartments in Europe.  Oh, I kept thinking, those Spanish are so clever with those tiny little apartments.  I don't know if I could knock down my walls or get those furnishings, but gosh it's nice to have some inspiration.  I had about five of those moments before I started doing math.  Spain.  2000-2003.  Oh.  These must have been some of the apartments that helped fuel the real estate bubble that popped a few years ago.  Yeah.  I've got to say, thinking about the horrific under-25 unemployment rate and the rest of the eurozone crisis made that book feel just a little less instructive.

A few days before, I'd taken another book from the library called, simply, The Energy Problem.  I was pretty excited about this because I thought it would be a good reference for my children about the scientific roots of the problem and some of the options for alternatives.  Yes, there were some issues with style and grammar, but maybe that was a fair trade-off since it was otherwise clear.  But Chapter 2- What To Do About It?- was such a huge disappointment.  Fine, give me the easy, end user-focused solutions, and yes, talk about public transportation.  But, um, nothing about industry?  Really?  I wonder why that wasn't mentioned at all.  Perhaps because getting industry to change would require the author to tell people that they have to advocate at a political level and while that's doable, it's also more difficult than telling people not to drive their cars.

Well, thank goodness for television and one of my favorite mindless shows, What Not To Wear.  Someone will go through a week of trying on clothes, get new makeup and a great hair cut, and then their friends and family will tell them how great they look.  Yay!  I love a feel good story as much as anyone else.  It's just that, after not having watched this for a couple of years until this week, I cringed.  It wasn't just that so many of these women were focused on how they would appear for potential dates, it was that some of these women seemed dysmorphic, almost all of them had low self-esteem and one of them was grappling with the after-effects of sexual abuse (I suspect that's the case with a lot of the "contestants", but I've only seen one address it).  I certainly don't object to these people getting a boost to their self-esteem via a new wardrobe, but I wish some of them could also get psychological counseling.

Yeah.  Explain to me again why people seek out leisure time?

Deb in the City

Thursday, July 12, 2012

My thoughts on the July/August 2012 edition of Foreign Affair

I hope more people I know start reading Foreign Affairs.  It talks about policy more than politics, and many of the contributors are well-respected names in their fields.  I don't agree with everything- that's probably an understatement- but in an internet world where it is all too easy to fall into your own echo chamber, sometimes that's refreshing.

I did not read every single word- not all of the book reviews, and not all of the responses- but I read enough to recommend that you go get your own copy.  I know, most of these links won't give you the whole story, but they might at some later date.

Why Iran Should Get the Bomb- Put this in the category of things I disagree with.  There's a saying that if you give the floor to one crazy person you have to let all of them talk; well, this is what happens when you publish a piece called Time to Attack Iran.  This piece isn't as badly written- that would be hard- but the arguments are equally unconvincing.  The argument hinges on: 1) India and Pakistan haven't fired on each other and neither has China, the US or Russia and 2) this will make Iran and it's neighbors feel better since Israel already has it.  Yeah... no.

Europe's Optional Catastrophe- Yes, the eurozone is *still* a mess.  Sebastian Mallaby agrees with just about everyone that the ball is in Germany's court.  Quantitative easing has its merits, and while structural reforms need to be made, it is not the time to focus on that at the expense of the economic system.  As he explains it, this latest disaster revisits the 1992 Exchange Rate Mechanism crisis, which Germany might have been able to stave off had it agreed to cut rates and accept some inflation.  Instead, they opted to create the eurozone.

"Crises take longer to come to a head than you think they will, and then they happen faster than you thought they would." Rudiger Dornbusch.  Indeed.

The Cuban Missile Crisis at 50- What lessons can we learn from the way Kennedy handled the crisis?  Essentially, if you're going to speak loudly, make sure you still have a big stick.  Also make sure that you're not simply playing at brinksmanship for its own sake- don't risk a confrontation if you don't think you're averting a larger one.  Graham Allison draw parallels between it and the Iranian nuclear question (although I wouldn't say he offers any suggestions other than to hope for a change in Israeli domestic politics), North Korea (again, no lessons, since the US is not willing to risk the attack on South Korea that would most probably result if we really put the screws to North Korea) and, interestingly, China.  We are not in danger of being at war with China, but their changing status as a partner with increasing critical mass is brings with it new challenges.  We shouldn't overreact to their threat- and I am one who believes their strengths have been vastly overstated and oversold- but we also shouldn't ignore real threats to our trade, particularly around intellectual patents and protectionism.

Trading Up in Asia- This was, I thought, a balanced look at the benefits and challenges the Tran-Pacific Partnership would bring.  The primary argument in favor is that a trade agreement can bring opportunities for our businesses that can replace domestic consumers they've lost in the recession.  (In general, I approve of more open trade.)  However, critics have brought up legitimate challenges, including the proposed terms around intellectual property rights, internet usage and the disturbing lack of transparency that's characterized the negotiations.

Environmental Alarmism, Then and Now- Possibly my favorite piece in this issue, despite the fact that it was written by Bjorn Lomborg.  I hope it goes without saying that I consider global warming to be a serious issue and that we need to mitigate and limit it.  This immediately puts me at odds with Lomborg.  But I still found myself agreeing with his larger points.  His primary target is the 1972 book The Limits to Growth and the thesis that it is economic growth that dooms the human population because the earth contains finite resources.  As Lomborg notes, this ignores and discounts the real and necessary benefits economic development brings, particularly for the poorest among us.  He takes particular issue with the predictions about both the availability and the prices of commodity resources, most of which were wrong.  (It's true, he doesn't address the means by which those resources are extracted, and that in and of itself is enough reason to look for alternatives.)  

The Right Way Out of Afghanistan- The political structures of Afghanistan have to be as transparent and functional as possible before we exit, or we're allowing for more instability in the region.  As an important corollary, the corruption which characterizes that government needs to be eradicated.

Obama's New Global Posture- An argument to maintain a strong military presence but with greater efficiency and effectiveness.  Eh.

How India Stumbled- India, the up and coming economic market darling in 2009, still has a lot of potential but suffers from a lack of political transparency and needs to realign its political processes to reflect the needs of the citizens and not the political parties.

Deterrence Lessons From Iraq- Saddam Hussein made both good and bad decisions.  Sometimes he underestimated his opponents, and sometimes he understood the stakes.  This, despite increasing isolation and mental instability.  The "lesson" is that we can't count on leaders to be rational actors.  Not entirely sure Saddam Hussein is the best example to use.

How to Succeed in Business- For everyone who thinks the U.S. government of all persuasions is too business friendly, Alexander Benard disagrees.  We have not used our power nearly enough for businesses in developing markets, and this is putting us at a disadvantage compared to not only China but also India, Brazil, Russia and parts of Europe.  Further, our regulations are overseen by competing government entities and they sometimes operate at cross-purposes.  Fortunately, we still have time to improve our standing, especially in light of the dissatisfaction many have expressed in deals with China.

Cleaning Up Coal- Coal is the cheap fuel and it's not going away any time soon.  I am in complete agreement that we should modernize our existing coal plants and build new plants to take advantage of the latest cleaner technology.  I am much cooler to the idea of carbon capture and sequestration, possibly because to my knowledge it doesn't exist.  Let me know when someone has this up and running and then I will get excited.

All in all, a thought-provoking issue.  Recommended at the very least as food for thought.

Deb in the City