Friday, September 19, 2003

David Neiwert has a new, brief series up, ending here with links to earlier entries, on the Bush clan's dealings with the Nazis. The upshot: after carefully reviewing the evidence, he concludes the clan was in Nazi Germany up to their necks, but not for ideological reasons; they were just in it for the money. But also that in trying to profit by enabling the Nazis, they bear some moral responsibility for what the Nazis did whether they had it in mind themselves or not.

Given Neiwert's focus on our modern-day domestic loons, it should be no surprise that he draws parallels to mainstream Republicans' dealings with, say, our radical Christianist right. But the Bush family's very tight dealings with the Saudi ruling clan could be seen in the same light...

Thursday, September 18, 2003

Another page from the annals of modern business ethics: we now have a new case of companies using tricky accounting to defraud their clients. Specifically, the companies in question negotiated deep discounts on travel, and then billed clients for the full face value of their airplane tickets, hotel rooms, and so forth, pocketing the difference.

Who was involved in this accounting fraud? Three of the four major accounting firms...

And now, a commentary on the latest, well, droppings of wisdom from New York Times diplomatic sage, and America's most important columnist, two time Pulitzer prizewinner Tom Friedman:

It's time we Americans came to terms with something: France is not just our annoying ally. It is not just our jealous rival. France is becoming our enemy.

If you add up how France behaved in the run-up to the Iraq war (making it impossible for the Security Council to put a real ultimatum to Saddam Hussein that might have avoided a war),

Dubya issued an ultimatum, backed by the full strength of the US military, already in place and ready to roll. It didn't work. Does Friedman really think it might have been more persuasive with a UN imprimatur?

More seriously, Friedman distorts (or more properly, ignores) the actual motives of the French -- they were taking us at our word that the casus belli was Saddam's weapons of mass destruction (not weapons "programs", but actual weapons), and pointing out quite properly that we had not shown convincing evidence of the threat, as it happens, for very good reasons. So, so far, Friedman argues that France has shown itself to be our "enemy" for failing to endorse our lies.

and if you look at how France behaved during the war (when its foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, refused to answer the question of whether he wanted Saddam or America to win in Iraq),

Was this comment widely reported? During the, well, "major combat operations" (I can't say "during the war" because it seems it's not over yet), I was reading Le Monde daily and can't recall seeing it. In light of the earlier egregious distortion of Chirac's comments, before the war, by the British and American governments, and the entire Anglophone press, I'd sure like to see the context.

and if you watch how France is behaving today (demanding some kind of loopy symbolic transfer of Iraqi sovereignty to some kind of hastily thrown together Iraqi provisional government, with the rest of Iraq's transition to democracy to be overseen more by a divided U.N. than by America), then there is only one conclusion one can draw: France wants America to fail in Iraq.

France wants America to sink in a quagmire there in the crazy hope that a weakened U.S. will pave the way for France to assume its "rightful" place as America's equal, if not superior, in shaping world affairs.

Well, a unilateral US occupation either will become a quagmire, or it won't. If Friedman thinks it won't, then we have no reason to care what the French, or anyone else, thinks about it. If he thinks it will, and we need help of others to get out, then we shouldn't expect those others to send us their troops as car-bomb fodder without having something to say about how the operation is managed.

What the French have to say, based on their own experience in Algeria and Vietnam, is that long Western occupations of non-Western countries with a strong nationalistic bent just don't work, and that until there is a governing structure in place that is recognized as legitimate by the Iraqis themselves, tensions will continue to rise and the situation will continue to deteriorate.

(Someone might be tempted to bring up Japan as a counterexample. However, they already had decades of experience with at least elements of a more or less Western political structure, albeit a somewhat authoritarian version. Also, the occupiers had the endorsement of the emperor -- an authority figure recognized by the Japanese as legitimate -- for the occupation, and had scored decisive victory in a much longer and more brutal war than the Iraq war to date, harder fought on both sides).

As to the realism of the timetable, it's true that Dubya's crew doesn't much want to discuss the question of how soon we might leave right at the moment. But earlier on, they were happy to talk about an occupation lasting only a few months, before we set up some sort of provisional authority. So again, it seems, what makes France our enemy is their perfidious insistence on taking the liars in the White House at their word.

But Friedman is perfectly aware that public statements from diplomats aren't always to be taken literally -- he acknowledged himself before the war that Colin Powell's public arguments about the imminence of the WMD threat were not to be believed, and that he didn't believe them. So it's quite conceivable that the timetables that the French have proferred are negotiating positions anyway, and that they would be happy to accept a slower timetable, so long as all parties were genuinely committed to stick to it.

In summary, when Colin Powell goes to the Security Council and prates on for more than an hour about the imminence of a threat which, in reality, does not exist, he's engaged in the sometimes awkward business of diplomacy as it is practiced, and no one should take much offense. When the French engage in a little public hard bargaining, they're our enemy.

Moving right along...

Yes, the Bush team's arrogance has sharpened French hostility. Had President Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld not been so full of themselves right after America's military victory in Iraq -- and instead used that moment, when the French were feeling that maybe they should have taken part, to magnanimously reach out to Paris to join in reconstruction -- it might have softened French attitudes. But even that I have doubts about.

What the French have always insisted on throughout this fiasco is that the UN retain its own autonomy, and not be turned into a rubber stamp for ill-conceived American schemes. If the sort of cooperation that Friedman has in mind involves a chain of command ending in the oval office, he's right to have doubts. But if that makes France our enemy, then Friedman needs a refresher in the distinction between "ally" and "serf".

What I have no doubts about, though, is that there is no coherent, legitimate Iraqi authority able to assume power in the near term, and trying to force one now would lead to a dangerous internal struggle and delay the building of the democratic institutions Iraq so badly needs. Iraqis know this. France knows this, which is why its original proposal (which it now seems to be backtracking on a bit) could only be malicious.

Aw, gee. What's wrong with that ruling council that Dubya set up -- is it illegitimate, or incoherent? Or both? Or overloaded with carpetbaggers and terrorists? Or just corrupt?

Regardless, as I noted above, the French insistence on a quick timetable is probably a negotiating position anyway. We'll probably never know, since Dubya's crew has shown no inclination to negotiate anything.

What is so amazing to me about the French campaign -- "Operation America Must Fail" -- is that France seems to have given no thought as to how this would affect France. Let me spell it out in simple English: if America is defeated in Iraq by a coalition of Saddamists and Islamists, radical Muslim groups -- from Baghdad to the Muslim slums of Paris -- will all be energized, and the forces of modernism and tolerance within these Muslim communities will be on the run. To think that France, with its large Muslim minority, where radicals are already gaining strength, would not see its own social fabric affected by this is fanciful.

The French have thought long and hard about these issues. That's why they didn't want us to invade in the first place. Now that we have, the resulting mess is our fault alone. Having foreseen that the invasion might end ugly, and having tried to warn us off, they are now refusing to go along with an occupation strategy that they regard as doomed, and trying to suggest alternatives. Clearly, this makes them our enemy.

If France were serious, it would be using its influence within the European Union to assemble an army of 25,000 Eurotroops, and a $5 billion reconstruction package, and then saying to the Bush team: Here, we're sincere about helping to rebuild Iraq, but now we want a real seat at the management table. Instead, the French have put out an ill-conceived proposal, just to show that they can be different, without any promise that even if America said yes Paris would make a meaningful contribution.

Ahem... the French point is that we need to give Iraqis a seat at the management table.

Beyond that -- come on. The troops exist. The money is there. They could be mobilized quickly, and Friedman knows that as well as anyone else. If Dubya's crew is not inclined to offer a "real seat at the management table", to anyone, what's the point?

But then France has never been interested in promoting democracy in the modern Arab world, which is why its pose as the new protector of Iraqi representative government -- after being so content with Saddam's one-man rule -- is so patently cynical.

Rumsfeld shakes hands with Saddam

Clearly, not all E.U. countries are comfortable with this French mischief, yet many are going along for the ride. It's stunning to me that the E.U., misled by France, could let itself be written out of the most important political development project in modern Middle East history. The whole tone and direction of the Arab-Muslim world, which is right on Europe's doorstep, will be affected by the outcome in Iraq. It would be as if America said it did not care what happened in Mexico because it was mad at Spain.

Either that, or they think that the folks who launched an invasion based on lies, and who are criminally botching the subsequent occupation, have the worst of the argument, and they're not "comfortable" with our "mischief". Which to Friedman, I guess, would make them our enemies.

Says John Chipman, director of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies: "What the Europeans are saying about Iraq is that this is our backyard, we're not going to let you meddle in it, but we're not going to tend it ourselves."

Oh, gee. Someone else as silly as Friedman. They can't stop us from "meddling", and they know it -- but they don't have to cooperate. Friedman, and Chipman, are acting as if we have some kind of a right to deploy their troops and their money in the service of our scheme, and that by refusing to go along, they become our enemy.

But what's most sad is that France is right -- America will not be as effective or legitimate in its efforts to rebuild Iraq without French help. Having France working with us in Iraq, rather than against us in the world, would be so beneficial for both nations and for the Arabs' future. Too bad this French government has other priorities.

The French tried to stop us from invading. Now that we've invaded, and even Friedman tacitly admits (above) that the occupation threatens to become a "quagmire", they're trying to convince us to find a way to get out.

The reason that American troops are in a tough spot in Iraq is that their American leadership put them there -- egged on quite a bit by Friedman himself. If the occupation is going badly, it's that leadership that bears the primary responsibility. Much as Friedman tries, we can't blame the French.

Unless, of course, the neocon crew's phantasmal visions of a quick victory and trouble-free handoff to Chalabi came from acid tabs planted by nefarious French agents in Rumsfeld's water cooler. In which case, I suppose, it would be fair to blame the French, and to call them our enemy.

Note: remarks on Japan slightly extended late, amid more general copyediting than usual...

Wednesday, September 17, 2003

Seen on a newsstand, on the cover of InTouch magazine:

How J.Lo's Making Sure Her Third Marriage Will Last Forever.

I guess forever just isn't as long as it used to be...

So, one Real Reason (of the many) that supporters of the invasion bring up for attacking Saddam is that he was supporting terrorism. Well, what about these guys?

Nearly a year ago, Khalid Mishaal, a senior leader of Hamas, the militant Palestinian organization, attended a charitable fund-raising conference here where he talked at length with Crown Prince Abdullah, the de facto Saudi ruler.

According to a summary of the meeting written by a Hamas official, Mr. Mishaal and other Hamas representatives thanked their Saudi hosts for continuing "to send aid to the people through the civilian and popular channels, despite all the American pressures exerted on them."

The Saudi government, of course, says it doesn't support terrorists:

"It's a ridiculous accusation; no Saudi government money goes to Hamas, directly or indirectly," said Adel al-Jubeir, the foreign affairs adviser to Prince Abdullah. "Why on earth would we not stop this kind of funding? Why on earth would our crown prince say we do not want to support Hamas and then allow people to do this under the table?"

But note the qualifier: no Saudi government money goes to Hamas. In a country where just about all the wealth is concentrated in the hands of the royal family (or close associates like the bin Laden clan), the distinction between their private donations and government policy amounts to precious little difference.

Of course, another Real Reason for evicting Saddam was that it would supposedly, somehow, give us more leverage over the Saudis. But we were getting leverage from Saddam while he was in power, when the Saudis needed American troops to defend against the threat he represented. Now those troops are supposed to be going, and the leverage is already gone. Meanwhile, a major chunk of American military combat strength -- not only regular army, but the reserves, fercryinnoutloud -- are bogged down in the Iraqi occupation, with no end in sight, and al-Jazeera daily carries on-site reporting that makes a mockery of the sunny pronouncements of Dubya's aides and shills. How exactly has this enhanced our freedom of action vis-a-vis the Saudis?

It hasn't been a great month for the Fake Reasons for the invasion either. Kay's report on WMD has been delayed, apparently because they couldn't even find evidence of enough nebulous weapons-related activity to say that Saddam had a "program" for developing weapons -- they seem to have given up on actual weapons long ago. And as I'm the last lefty blogger on the planet to note, Dumsfeld has just admitted that he has "not seen any indication" that Saddam had a thing to do with 9/11, even though his knee-jerk response to the attack when it happened was to try to turn it into an excuse to launch an attack on Saddam. Links via Thinking it Through

Tuesday, September 16, 2003

And now, business ethics in the modern age. Richard Grasso, head of the New York Stock Exchange, has been criticized quite a bit for engineering a gargantuan compensation package, running into the hundreds of millions. Part of the outrage stems from Grasso's role, which is to guard the reputation of American business generally for fair and ethical dealing, at least with its investors. And indeed, he has some regrets:

Last week, Mr. Grasso said his only regret was that he had deferred much of his pay during the last few years. Had he not, there would have been no headlines about $140 million.

So, Grasso showed an inadequate grasp of the most basic principle of modern business ethics: he failed to take the money and run.

Here's what I said about the Homeland Security Department when it was still a proposal:

So --- the problem of turf wars between the FBI and CIA is dealt with by giving them both a new agency to fight with, the problem of information hoarding at headquarters is dealt with by establishing a new hoard of information at headquarters, and we also improve matters by imposing a new layer of centralized bureaucracy on agencies which (with the possible exception of INS) didn't have much to do with the problem.

But it does have strong bipartisan support in Congress.

What could possibly go wrong?

Here's what the WaPo said last week:

Six months after it was established to protect the nation from terrorism, the Department of Homeland Security is hobbled by money woes, disorganization, turf battles and unsteady support from the White House, and has made only halting progress toward its goals, according to administration officials and independent experts.

The top two officials under Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge are stepping down amid criticism from some White House officials and elsewhere in the administration. So few people want to work at the department that more than 15 people declined requests to apply for the top post in its intelligence unit -- and many others turned down offers to run several other key offices, government officials said.

Desperately needed repairs to the department's cramped, red-brick headquarters on a Navy facility in Northwest Washington have been stalled by a shortage of money. Some employees at the complex do not have the secure telephone lines required to do their work, the officials said.

As a result, the department has made little progress on some of the main challenges cited when it was created in March...

Shocking. But who ever could have guessed?

Monday, September 15, 2003

When a telemarketing group filed a last-ditch lawsuit to try and prevent implementation of the national do-not-call list, Dave Barry published their phone number, along with the suggestion that they might welcome unsolicited calls from interested citizens conveying their opinion of the move. The result:

Thousands of Barry's readers have done as they were told, forcing the association to stop answering its phones. Callers now hear a recording, which says that because of "overwhelming positive response to recent media events, we are unable to take your call at this time."

It's good to know that even under trying circumstances, the representatives of this industry uphold the reputation for honesty and ethical conduct which they have long deserved.

via Slashdot.

And now, via Charles Kuffner... a new triumph for the efficiency of free enterprise and market based mechanisms:

... every day, consumers sign contracts that contain mandatory-arbitration clauses with insurance companies, investment brokers, car dealers, student-loan and mortgage lenders, or they provide their consent by making purchases with credit cards or by buying a product, experts said. For instance, some computer companies put the clause with the warranty in the box, said Celeste Hammond, a professor at Chicago-based John Marshall Law School and an arbitrator who works with the American Arbitration Association. ...

"When you have mandatory arbitration in consumer agreements, most likely nobody knows they're there," she said. "What consumers don't realize is when you agree to this you cannot go to trial, the arbitrator is not bound to apply a rule of law, that if an arbitrator were to make an incorrect decision there is no appeal," she said.

Also, "usually the arbitrator doesn't give a reason for the decision. There's no rationale, no reasoning, which is what you would get in litigation. So you don't know if the person understood your point."

So much more quick and efficient. And the consumers must see the benefit; otherwise they wouldn't have agreed to the deal. That's the wonderful thing about freedom of contract, right?

Or so some naive libertarians seem to believe, at any rate. What this "analysis" lacks is any regard for the differing positions of the two parties. Large corporations can have hirelings working full time to try to figure out new ways to screw the little guy. The little guy may not even notice until it's too late -- he's too busy trying to pay the rent.

Slightly more sophisticated libertarians will argue that this presumes that no small company will step in to start making money on the untapped market for honesty in business. This is the sort of argument one libertarian email correspondent engaged in when he suggested, in response to a post on the shoddy work of credit reporting agencies (which can make you miserable quicker than the IRS, and screw up more often), that:

Of course, if sufficient numbers of consumers were to get totally fed up with the tyranny of Equifax-type operations, then in a free market, surely some smart entrepreneur would try to tap demand for privacy? Hey Charlie, let's set up in business!

Which, as I've noted before, is flawed several ways. First off, it ignores barriers to entry, which oligopolists in large industries work to create, and which naturally exist anyway in any nontrivial business, in terms of know-how and necessary partnerships, not to mention economies of scale available only to larger businesses. (It's worth noting, once again, that deregulation in several industries has been followed by a wave of consolidation, not a flood of new players into the market). Second, more seriously to my mind, it assumes a notion of rights in which people only get to enjoy those rights that they're able to pay for (as in the "privacy premiums" that seem to be the way we're heading in other spheres anyway).

So, how could this sort of problem be addressed in a free market, minarchist context? Well, a bunch of little guys could contribute to a larger collective organization which could bargain on their behalf to get more equitable deals. If you're a minarchist or anarchist libertarian who thinks that sounds like an attractive vision, congratulations: you have now embraced the syndicalist part of the anarcho-syndicalist program as well as the anarchist part, and may now proudly take your place on the radical left. (Don't expect milquetoast liberals like me to rush to join you, though).

But if the libertarian paradise you like to imagine doesn't include labor unions that makes the ones in, say, France seem tame by comparison, you might wish to reconsider...

More: Verging closer to labor relations, Ampersand provides another worked example of big business versus the little guy, attempting to explain to Will Baude why good bands accept lousy recording contracts:

There are a very limited number of labels who can provide access to a national audience (radio play, nationwide distribution of CDs, etc). There is a virtually unlimited number of young bands full of members who are sick of flipping burgers for a living and who are starving for a chance to reach a nationwide audience. Simple supply and demand would suggest that bands will be willing to accept very lousy terms indeed.

Add to that the realities of the situation. On one side, there's a very wealthy record label, run by smart, business-knowledgeable executives, with its own legal team and decades of experience writing contracts. On the other side is a band of folks desperate not to blow their only chance at making a living creating music instead of flipping burgers, none of whom know anything about contract law, none of whom have any real business experience.

Baude also comes up with the "unmet demand here -- let's start a company!" meme. And as usual, he doesn't get much into the specifics of what's involved, assuming, in effect, that his new startup would somehow magically acquire the distribution networks, connections to radio, marketing know-how, and up-front cash needed to match the capabilities of the major labels. The funny thing is that in music, there actually are small, hungry startups, some of which probably do offer better deals to the bands. They're called indie labels. And the reason that bands are still interested in a major label deal is that indie labels simply can't match the majors in distribution and marketing. So bands that want to get their music heard are stuck with the choice of a lousy major-label deal, or nothing. Don't expect that to change anytime soon; like the rest of media, the major labels have been consolidating over the past few years...

By the way, there's a new flagpole-related folly of the sort that began this line of argument; a veteran in Florida is at risk of losing his house for flying an American flag on a flagpole that violates homeowner's association rules. But that's technically a contract dispute, so he's at least free of the horror of eminent domain...