Friday, December 12, 2003

Josh Marshall reports that Paul Wolfowitz is trying to hamstring Congressionally mandated oversight of military contractors' activities in Iraq. It's not entirely working -- Halliburton's price gouging on gasoline has already come in for some unpleasant attention. At any rate, it seems pretty clear that the contractors are siphoning out a lot of cash from the country.

I have to wonder what Grand Ayatollah Sistani thinks of this -- if he's following the situation closely. Juan Cole reported last month that Sistani had been, well ... incompletely briefed about the CPA plans for establishing a new Iraqi government, and "hit the roof" when he got the full details, about the lack of representative elections in particular. If he's similarly uninformed about the corporate shenanigans, he's likely to hit the roof again. Bear in mind that one key reason that most Shiites in Iraq aren't in open revolt is that Sistani has told them to hold off -- for now. There are only so many times Sistani can hit the roof before other structures start to sustain damage...

This post edited late to try to make it at least vaguely coherent...

Interesting show at the Middle East yesterday evening -- Rasputina. They came out with two cellos and drums (no other instruments) and rocked hard, on songs with the usual topics -- hot guys they met at parties, Howard Hughes, dead livestock, and something about a Transylvanian concubine. Since covers seem to be all the rage in the blogsphere these days, I might as well point out that they ended with solid covers of Rock and Roll by Led Zeppelin, and Bad Moon Rising, by Creedence Clearwater Revival, both arranged, of course, for two cellos and drums. They came out quite well, though Bad Moon Rising sounded quite a bit different from the twangy Creedence original. I highly recommend you catch the show if you have the chance.

Too bad about the openers, though. Just another so-so band with a gimmick.

Last Sunday, the Times printed up a dialogue on the impact of outsourcing, featuring this interesting comment, from the director of something called the "Center for Digital Strategies" at Dartmouth:

Out in the Bay Area there are plenty of folks who would love to create a little bit of protectionism around their I.T. jobs, but we are far better off letting a lot of those jobs go. Low-skill jobs like coding are moving offshore and what's left in their place are more advanced project management jobs.

And people wonder why so much software is riddled with security holes. I get the feeling this guy judges what's "low skilled" solely by whether or not someone in an LDC will take money for pretending to do the job -- never mind how well they can do it. Something to think about, with industry experts calling bad code (from one vendor in particular, but also bad code generally) a threat to national security. And I'm not even talking sabotage here -- though if you're the Chinese government, and you could do that sort of thing, why wouldn't you?

The same dialog featured this comment, from McKinsey's research director:

There is an assumption by protectionists that these jobs are going somewhere else, and all this money has been pocketed by C.E.O.'s who take it home. A little more sophisticated version is: It's being pocketed by companies in the form of profits. One step further and you say those profits are either going to go as returns to the investors in those companies, or they're going to go into new investment by those companies. Those savings enable me, if I am an investor, to consume more and therefore contribute to job recreation, and if I am a company, to re-invest and create jobs.

And the investors are buying more goods as well. Which is all great for American workers. Unless they're buying goods made in China, and investing in business which are creating new jobs entirely in China.

Of course, another well-covered reason for the lack of job growth in the US, even in the face of rising GDP is that productivity is increasing. Or something like that; another article in Sunday's times describes employers refusing to hire even in the face of increasing demand -- one economist actually talks about employers "trying to squeeze every ounce they can from their existing employees before they give in to hiring". Oh, boy -- "giving in" to creating jobs. We can't have that.

Which actually raises an interesting question that's been in the back of my mind for a while about the dramatic rise in reported American productivity over the past few years -- how much of it is due to companies following WalMart's leadership in forcing the workforce to work unpaid and unreported hours? A little of that goes an awfully long way...

The 3500 year old blogger is hanging it up.

I should explain. One of the odder corners of the blogsphere over the past several months has been the blog of someone claiming to be at least 3500 years old. She has no particular explanation for her longevity -- she apparently woke up with no memories at about that time after massive head trauma, and has been carrying on ever since as one might perhaps expect from Gwendolyn Ingolfsson if someone dumped her in the bronze age with total amnesia.

As one might naturally presume, we're dealing with an unreliable narrator -- as she admits even taken on her own terms: An early story described her dispatching of someone in the Civil War south who she called Clayton Williams (who was, among other things, a casual rapist of female slaves) -- a killing which she described at first as an act of vengeance, but in her sign-off she describes it instead as one of a long series of killings for sport, "because it felt good", the victim this time "chosen because it offered me the cover of a somewhat moral act".

Not a pleasant character, but an interesting character study if you have the time to go through it all...

Thursday, December 11, 2003

Amal Winter is an Arab-American political scientist who recently travelled to Iraq. Here's her report. The complaints about the out of touch CPA bureaucrats (almost none of whom speak Arabic), the lack of security for ordinary Iraqis, and her scant hopes for real democracy in any future arranged by the CPA should, regrettably, come as no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention. What's surprising is her disgust, as an American taxpayer, at the way that favored military contractors are pigging out at our expense:

It turns out that corporations like Bechtel and Halliburton reap guaranteed profits. Their contracts typically provide full reimbursement of costs plus a 7 percent profit: the more the companies charge the Pentagon, the more profit they make. Perhaps that explains why KBR flies in all the food-chicken and ground meat, lettuce and tomatoes-from the States instead of buying from the Iraqis. ...

The more I discovered about the corporate buy-out of Iraq the more upset I became. I was upset as an American-an American taxpayer happy to support social, medical, and security services. The transfer of money from the poor and middle-class tax payer into corporate coffers is a scandalous affront to the American sense of fairness. Corporations are supposed to pay taxes for the common good, not take collect them for their own private use. Let us not fool ourselves about 'military spending.' Functions such supplying food and fuel and munitions, building barracks and other facilities, and conducting logistical operations in Iraq have been privatized. The young foot-soldiers who do the actual shooting and killing may be equipped with more reliable flak-jackets out of the $66 billion dollars appropriated for the military but the rest will go to the corporations that supply the military. The funds appropriated by Congress will go primarily to large American corporations like Bechtel and Halliburton connected to, or should I say 'imbedded in,' the Bush administration.

In case the favoritism wasn't already blindingly obvious, the Pentagon has since announced that it would be refusing contracts to all but a small, favored list of countries -- hours before James Baker started trying to arrange debt forgiveness for Iraq from several countries not on the list. (Russia and Canada have already publically declined). And, to avoid any trouble from natives who might want a fair shake from foreign-dominated employers, the CPA is cracking down hard on Iraqi labor unions. Dubya's crew is still talking the "Iraqi freedom" game, but they're acting more and more like what they really want is compliant corporate serfs...

via Juan Cole.

A little news from Texas: in case you're wondering what kind of business ethics Dubya might have picked up in his salad days in Midland, consider this story:

Angry West Texans and some state officials are demanding a halt to a deal that allows a group of politically well-connected Midland oilmen to tap the desert and sell billions of gallons of water from the state's public reserves.

The venture was advancing without announcement or competitive bidding by the powerful Texas General Land Office, which controls 20 million acres of public lands and the liquids and minerals beneath them.

The project threatens to dry up the springs that several towns rely on; what's more, the plan is to send the water down the Rio Grande, where much of it would evaporate -- a scheme which the Texas agriculture commissioner, among others, describes as "sheer folly". But it has already been blessed by the Texas legislature -- "It was widely perceived as the speaker's bill", explains one county official, "and unusual things get done at the end of the session".


Tuesday, December 09, 2003

Quite a few Christians of more mainstream stripes are getting worried about the spread of a doctrine with the somewhat jawbreaking name of pretribulationist predispensational millenarianism -- roughly speaking, that the world is going to end pretty darn soon, and good Christians ought to get ready for it:

"Pretribs'" dreams of the future are extremely pessimistic. More accurately, their worldview includes almost no future for themselves on this earth. In stark contrast to the Reconstructionists who expect to be able to establish a Christian nation here in the United States, the pretribs expect the world to become very hostile toward Christians in the near future. This time of trial will be short-lived for Christians who have been truly "born-again." Before things get really bad, their involvement with this world will come to an end when Christ returns to "rapture" them into heaven.

When will all this take place? Very soon say most of the pretribs. They point to apocalyptic portions of the Gospels like the 13th chapter of Mark. They interpret these passages as a declaration that not more than one generation, i.e. 40 years, will pass between the initiating event that marks the beginning of the end of the "church dispensation" and the Rapture. Since most identify that initiating event as connected with the modern state of Israel, the clock is getting pretty close to striking midnight.

Which doesn't leave them with much of what an earlier, wimpier sort of Christian might have seen as a properly merciful disposition toward the rest of us:

All those cocky, condescending people who reject the hard-sell, last-minute evangelism of the pretribs will get theirs: searing heat, oceans turned to blood, open running sores. God will avenge all the slights delivered by the skeptics and the critics. They'll be sorry they didn't follow the four-step plan to salvation when they had the chance.

It's a short hop, skip and a jump from this position to the notion that making things worse, to bring about what the pretribs interpret as Biblical prophecies of tribulation, doom, gloom and the apocalypse, is actually doing G-d's work -- far more so than actually, say, trying to improve the lives of all those heathens who will be burning in hell by G-d's will no matter what.

Imagine for a minute what someone who actually thought like this might do with real power, if they had it. Now, hold that thought.

Juan Cole has a blog entry up in which he expresses grave reservations about the apparent American adoption of counterinsurgency tactics from the current regime in Israel:

The tragic thing is that the Sharon government's Iron Fist policies do not work (if by "work" you mean "lead to resolution of conflict and make people safer"). Palestinian opponents of the Great Israeli Land Theft continue to grow like kudzu, and terrorism has not been stopped. Even the former heads of Shin Bet, Israeli internal security, have publicly come out to critique Sharon and say it does not work. ...

The US is doomed not just to a small run of the mill disappointment in Iraq if it goes on riding roughshod over ordinary Arabs' feelings like this. It is doomed to a major blow-up that will do incalculable damage to the security and well-being of you and me.

And who does he think is responsible for this dreadful idea? Lieut. Gen. Jerry Boykin -- the same one who regularly appears before American fundamentalist audiences saying, among other things, that Muslims worship "an idol", that the enemy he is fighting is not Osama bin Laden, but Satan, and that a black smudge on a photo he took over Mogadishu was a demonic presence.

And he's adopting policies that don't work -- if by "work" you mean "make people safer"...

In the modern age, when things happen on Internet Time, big game hunters just don't have the time to travel all the way to Africa, set up a blind, and wait for big game to go traipsing by it. And by the wonders of capitalism, the market has fulfilled their need. There are now farms that allow you to hunt big game which is confined behind a fence, just waiting for you to come along and shoot it, allowing you to acquire the prestige that comes from having the head of a dead animal mounted over your mantel without all the fuss and bother.

If you're morally outraged on behalf of the animals, save it. Conditions of the animals our factory farms raise for food are far worse. What raises my eyebrow is the moral quality of the hunters here, the ones who want the trophies, but can't be bothered to actually hunt...

Here's an lovely little item on the strained quality of modern American justice. Remember James Yee, the Muslim chaplain at Guantanmo who was arrested a few months ago on charges of espionage? He is now on trial -- for keeping porn on a government computer and for adultery. It's not as if they are terribly worried about adulterers in the ranks, either -- his partner in, well, crime is also an officer, and is testifying under a grant of immunity.

So, how did the prosecutors find out about the relationship?

[Yee's paramour] said that as far as she knew, no one else knew of their relationship. But when she was interviewed during the security investigation as a friend of Captain Yee's, the interrogator asked her if they had been intimate and she answered truthfully.

So, the original charges were baseless, but rather than admit that, the government went on a fishing expedition in his personal life, found something else, and charged him with that. I thought that kind of justice was reserved for Bill Clinton.

Meanwhile, the Supreme Court is looking into Texas justice, the kind Dubya wants to see nationwide. A court there recently stayed the execution date for a convict, because prosecutors had lied to the defense at the trial -- and the stay was overturned by the circuit court there because... well, actually they won't say why. The opinion was marked "not for publication".

And one last one, via Jim Henley. It seems that the median jail sentence for people convicted of crimes that the Justice Department claims are related to international terrorism is fourteen days. When Congress was voting to give the Justice Department special powers for dealing with crimes relating to terrorism, I doubt they had anything in mind which would merit a fourteen day jail sentence. Am I the only person who hears overtones of Orwell these days whenever they encounter the phrase, "Justice Department"?

Here's a brief roundup of news related to the mutual fund scandals.

You'll recall that this started out as an investigation into a tactic which has been somewhat misleadingly called "market timing". Briefly, a mutual fund owns shares in a whole lot of other things (stocks, bonds, sometimes real estate). The stuff it owns changes value from time to time (quite frequently for stocks and, say, treasury bonds), and the fund periodically reports new prices to reflect the changes in the values of the stuff it owns. But if you know what the fund owns yourself, you can anticipate whether the price will go up or down, and buy and sell accordingly, racking up profit at no risk.

In the meantime, all sorts of other nasty practices have come to light, including fund managers trading in their own funds (obviously, against their own investors), and so forth. A few particularly hot items:

  • Invesco, already under the gun for having solicited business from market timers, who churned their funds at the expense of their long-term investors, now finds that its prosecutors have poster children. Literally. One of the funds that market timers bilked was actually marketed to kids.
  • The Putnam mutual fund company -- where some managers routinely traded in their own funds -- is telling the public that it has made a clean break with the past. In private, they're still playing hardball with prosecutors and former employees, as part of an apparent cover-up.
  • And yet another large fund group, MFS, also seems to have been cooperating with market timers, at the expense of its long term investors.
  • And here's another way that funds cheated investors: reporting prices that were flat out bogus, failing to reflect changes in the values of the underlying assets for days or weeks.

Lastly, the informant who first got New York DA Elliot Spitzer interested in mutual funds has come forward; she is Noreen Harrington, a former executive at a hedge fund that also made money (on behalf of its wealthy investors) in market timing, who had actually complained to her bosses about the practice. The fund says that she was "terminated for reasons having to do with her performance"; evidently, they thought she just wasn't a good fit for the business they were in. How right they were.

Monday, December 08, 2003

In case you missed the few dozen other bloggers who have linked to it, here's how we're liberating one town in Iraq:

As the guerrilla war against Iraqi insurgents intensifies, American soldiers have begun wrapping entire villages in barbed wire. ...

"This fence is here for your protection," reads the sign posted in front of the barbed-wire fence. "Do not approach or try to cross, or you will be shot."

It would appear that the Pentagon is taking a leaf from the PR departments of banks and cell phone companies who tell you that "to serve you better" they've got a new fee schedule where the price structure is somewhat different, but everything costs more. One wonders how some of these people are comparing the new regime to the old. It's difficult to tell -- particularly given the nature of the prior regime and the habits it ingrained. Here's how one Iraqi dealt with the Colonel responsible for that fence:

"Colonel Sassaman, you should come and live in this village and be a sheik," Hassan Ali al-Tai told the colonel outside the checkpoint.

The colonel smiled, and Mr. Tai turned to another visitor.

"Colonel Sassaman is a very good man," he said. "If he got rid of the barbed wire and the checkpoint, everyone would love him."

If the reporter who witnessed this thinks he knows what Mr. Tai really thinks of Col. Sassaman, he's a fool. And the same goes for pollsters. But here's what some of his fellow townspeople are complaining about:

In Abu Hishma, residents complain that the village is locked down for 15 hours a day, meaning that they are unable to go to the mosque for morning and evening prayers. They say the curfew does not allow them time to stand in the daylong lines for gasoline and get home before the gate closes for the night.

But mostly, it is a loss of dignity that the villagers talk about. For each identification card, every Iraqi man is assigned a number, which he must hold up when he poses for his mug shot. The card identifies his age and type of car. It is all in English.

"This is absolutely humiliating," said Yasin Mustafa, a 39-year-old primary school teacher. "We are like birds in a cage."

Is it too farfetched to believe that some of these people might actually prefer to be living under the old regime? And how bad are we blowing it to make Saddam Hussein look good by comparison?

In the meantime, the White House is nearly gushing leaks about the possibility of setting up some kind of Shiite theocracy. Tom Friedman recently promoted the idea, to which Salam Pax responds:

He makes it sound as if we are going for consolation prizes now: "You didn't get the Democratic Iraq Package, but hey... very soon you will be getting visas to Iran with no trouble at all".

And one wonders what the potential recipients of the "Shiite theocrat package" would think of it, either in comparison to the old regime, or on its own. One of Riverbend's first blog entries described already losing her job because she's a woman -- and the theocrats aren't even in power yet.

Since I keep on saying that a Shiite theocracy may be one of the better achievable options at this point, I suppose I should also acknowledge that it wouldn't be much bloody good for a lot of the people who would be stuck with it. It sucks. It really sucks. But it's better than a civil war -- and if we close off the one, then radical Shiite militias may very well give us the other. I wish it was "below average" among the feasible outcomes, but wishing isn't enough. You have to have a better idea. It's not so much that I haven't got one, as that Bremer & co. don't seem to either.

Sunday, December 07, 2003

Once upon a time, in Cleveland, there was a band called Rocket from the Tombs. It wasn't a very long time. The band played less than a dozen gigs before breaking up -- without ever releasing a single record. But its members went on to other bands, like Pere Ubu, which stuck around a bit longer, and some of those bands' best songs had originally been Rockets material. And so, on the strength of those songs and one endlessly bootlegged radio show, Rocket from the Tombs started to gather a kind of posthumous cult following, to the point that a totally different band named themselves Rocket from the Crypt as a kind of homage.

Nearly thirty years later, and after the death of original guitarist Peter Laughner, singer David Thomas was looking for a band to fill out a bill featuring Pere Ubu, and decided, more or less on a lark, to try to round up the original members of Rocket from the Tombs, and do the gig (with Television's Richard Lloyd substituting for Laughner) -- not as a reunion, he says, but just as a one off event by a bunch of guys who liked playing together. Ten months later, they're still doing it, and Thomas confesses that "credibility is stretched now on the official line that this is not a reunion".

I caught the show at TT's yesterday night, and I'm now here to tell you that even with David Thomas needing a cane to get around on stage, Cleveland does, in fact, rock. The show was brilliant. They are still touring, by the way. It's probably too late for anyone reading this to catch the show in Washington DC this evening (weather permitting, one presumes), but after that, they will head south. Catch them if you have the chance.

And there were openers. At shows like this, there are sometimes two kinds of openers -- local openers arranged by the venues, and touring openers who tour with the band. As in this case, where the first set was played by Boston punk veterans Unnatural Axe. When one of the band's songs is actually called "Three Chord Rock", you don't expect ruffles and flourishes (though "Punks from Outer Space" -- they came to rock the human race -- had echoes of Devo), but the songs were tight, were played with verve, and the few dozen people who caught the whole set got a heck of a show. As folks drifted in, a larger crowd caught the touring openers (for a leg of the tour perhaps ending in Boston), U.S. Maple. Their guitarist told the crowd maybe a dozen times before their set that "rock and roll music fucking RULES." Which was an early tipoff that theirs' fucking doesn't. This sort of thing happens more often than you might expect...