Friday, June 17, 2005

Another item from this month's Atlantic is one of their "future history" pieces -- this one by James Fallows on the economic collapse of 2006-2016. It has its interesting moments -- not least when it leaves current Washingtonian conventional wisdom... exposed. The key moment in Fallows's scenario is when China lets the value of the dollar drop, abandoning their currency peg, and triggering the nasty "hard landing" scenario that has many economists worried. Why? Because in 2008, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, bogeyman to all Georgetown (who has of course become an "outright military dictator", dont'cha know), struck a secret deal allowing the Chinese access to Venezuelan oil in return for this malicious slap at Washington.

What to say about this?

First off, it's not unreasonable to suppose that the Chinese would cut an oil deal with folks inimical to us. Their partners in current oil deals include Russia, Sudan -- and Iran. And, by the by, Venezuela -- already, and obviously without Fallows's quid pro quo, as the currency peg is still in place.

So the Chinese obviously do need oil. And if they're dealing with the genocidal regime in the Sudan, they're obviously not too fussy about where they get it. But that brings me to a second point -- it's one thing for the Chinese to offer money to an oil supplier. It's quite another to suppose that they'd be willing to allow an oil supplier (one among many --- they're cutting oil deals with Canada, fercryinnoutloud) to dictate their monetary policy. One of the reasons the Chinese deal with multiple suppliers, one can safely presume, is so that no one of them is ever in a position to make demands like this.

But not only that. Having supposed that Chavez somehow obtains this amazing influence, Fallows supposes next that he will use it to slap at our country, and not to benefit his own. As if he is as obsessed with Washington as some of Washington's chattering classes obviously are with him. Say what?

In the long term, the currency peg will go regardless. But the Chinese will do that when they think it benefits them -- and not one minute before. Much to the discomfort of Dubya's crew, which has been asking them for months, in increasingly strident tones, to drop the peg now...

Thursday, June 16, 2005

The newest Atlantic has an article wargaming the current North Korea mess. This is, you'll recall, a situation where Dubya came in denouncing Clinton's soft policy on negotiations, and instituted a new "get tough" policy -- the result of which is that the North Koreans now have, at least, several more nukes than they had when he entered office.

But, say Dubya's defenders, the Koreans were cheating on their deal with Clinton. Replies the guy who negotiated with the Koreans for Clinton:

Excuse me. The Soviets cheated on virtually every deal we ever made with them, but we were still better off with the deal than without it. ...

When the Clinton folks went out of office, the North Koreans had only the plutonium they had separated in the previous Bush administration. Now they've got a whole lot more. What did all this "tough" shit give us? It gave us a much more capable North Korea. Terrific!

Advocates of "get tough" policies generally push the line that they're being "hard-nosed" and "realistic". But a genuinely hard-nosed assessment of your options looks more like this:

I'm not interested in teaching other people lessons. I'm interested in the national security of the United States. If that's what you're interested in, are you better off with this deal or without it?

If you're being genuinely realistic, you do one thing. If you're convinced that the other guy will inevitably bow before your large swinging dick if you just wave it around enough, you do something else.

And now... reader requests. Reader Z.M. wants to know why the meme she's trying to tag me with is pointless.

It is pointless to ask me about popular music in malls because I'm rarely in malls, and listen to so little of what currently passes for popular music that if one of the obscure bands I do see in nightclubs covered a current radio hit, I probably wouldn't recognize it. (The one radio hit I would recognize is "Coin Operated Boy" by the Dresden Dolls -- their radio hit, to the extent they have one, and also a song I'm respectfully sick of, having heard it at just about every damn gig they've played in the Boston area for the past three years. Amanda, give it a rest).

My only other remark on this general topic is that annoying street musicians can be just as bad as annoying mall music. As to my tactics for dealing with this threat, I will invoke my right to withhold self-incriminating testimony, pursuant to the fifth amendment to the United States constitution.

I pass this meme on to:

  • No one. Because it bores me.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Half the story of real estate prices in Boston is well-known --- we're one of the coastal markets where prices are skyrocketing. The other half is not so well-known. One of the most active segments of the market -- and one of the ones most active in driving up prices on the whole -- is the luxury segment. And while those lower down on the totem pole are resorting to increasingly desperate stratagems (variable-rate mortgages, interest-only loans) in order to afford the initial payment on an increasingly unaffordable shack or condo, how does the upper class do it? The headline on a week-old edition of the Back Bay Courant (the silkened rag for one of the city's toniest neighborhoods) tells the tale:

Luxury Home Buyers are Paying in Cash

Of the $300 million in condo purchases at the new Ritz, for example, $270 million came in cash over the barrelhead. The same goes for 61 of 104 units in Trinity Place, the downtown building where a single-bedroom condo sells for the same price as an entire French countryside chateau.

One might point out the implications of this for the shape of the larger society -- but one wouldn't want to engage in class warfare, now would one?

Toward the end of a report on the World Social Forum in Brazil, Larry Lessig reflects on some of the differences between Brazil and America, speaking of an appearance by culture minister (and popular musician) Gilberto Gil:

For a bit, I was terrified a riot would break out. There was no room to move. We were physically squeezed on all sides. I tried to imagine Donald Rumsfeld in the same situation. One or two police stood at the back, just in case. But the crowd was peaceful, just jubilant.

Just as Gil started to speak, however, a handful of masked protesters appeared out of nowhere and positioned themselves right up front, brandishing posters. They were attacking the government. They were attacking Gil. They were supporters of pirate radio. They wanted a third layer of freedom--free radio spectrum, in addition to free software and free culture--and the government had resisted them. It was hypocrisy, they screamed. I was sure it would turn ugly--until Gil did something unimaginable in U.S. political culture. He stopped, and he engaged them. He argued with them. He listened to their arguments. A deputy joined Gil in the argument. They paused to listen to the protesters argue back. They then responded again, and Gil slowly whittled the opposition down. Midway through all this, a kid wearing a white T-shirt stood up just in front of us. Emblazoned on the back was the slogan "This is what democracy looks like." Eventually the crowd rose in Gil's support. They wanted more music. The protestors yielded. Gil was asked to sing some songs. ...

We were finally pushed onto a golf cart and then into a government car, so he could escape. But even here, when someone knocked on Gil's window, he rolled it down and continued arguing. He yelled out his final words as his driver (a man with less patience than Gil) sped away. When the window was closed, and after a moment of silence, I tried to explain to Gil just how extraordinary that scene appeared to American eyes. I said that I could never imagine the equivalent in the United States, with anyone actually in power.

"Yes, I know," he said, smiling. America, he explained, has "important" people. "Here, we are just citizens."

Are we that far from de Tocqueville's America? -- or, when he visited that America, with its Knickerbockers and Yankee merchant princes in the north, and its regal planters in the south, did de Tocqueville have a blind spot?