Archive for January, 2012

Drifting toward war with Iran

January 31, 2012

In this interview, Vali Nasr, a professor of international politics at Tufts University and a former adviser to the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, says the Obama administration has backed the Iranian government into a no-win situation—accept economic sanctions that will destroy the country economically, or risk a war with the United States and its allies that will destroy the country physically.

President Obama’s intentions toward Iran are, as usual, hard to interpret.  I have read commentators who say his earlier talk of dialogue with Iran a setup to show that the Iranians are unreasonable so that he could organize an anti-Iran coalition and justify anti-Iran sanctions, covert action and threats.  I have read commentators who say his anti-Iran sanctions and threats are a setup to neutralize war hawks in the United States and Israel.

Whatever his intentions, the threat to block Iran’s oil exports is a threat to destroy the Iranian economy.  The Iranian government must choose whether to surrender or fight.  The Obama administration would no doubt reply that all the Iranian government has to do to end the sanctions is to give up its nuclear program—that is, its ability to defend itself.  The Associated Press reported in my morning newspaper that Israeli hawks are openly pressing for an attack on Iran while the country is still unable to retaliate.

War to change the Iranian regime is a risky business.  We would risk loss of access to Persian Gulf oil and a worldwide economic crash.  We would risk military confrontation with China and other countries.  We would face the certainty that the surviving Iranians would be committed to revenge against the United States and Israel, and the likelihood of a new regime that actually would be completely fanatical and irrational.

Stepping back from this brink would be a risk to the President’s re-election.  Continuing in the present policy would be a risk to the country.  President Obama has said all options are on the table.  One of these ought to be diplomacy.

Click on The Iranian oil embargo blowback for insight from Pepe Escobar of Asia Times on the impact of an Iranian oil embargo on the economy of Europe and the rest of the world..

Hat tip for the video to Glenn Greenwald.

Thomas Riggins’ blog

January 31, 2012

I’m pleased to learn that my friend Thomas Riggins has started a web log.

Click on The First Casualty of War to read an excellent post about the increasing number of incidents in which the troops of the U.S.-backed Afghan government shoot at American and NATO troops.

His web log is in my links menu at the right under “Links to friends.”  Blogs I Like [5/28/14].

Looking back on the Populist era

January 31, 2012

Political issues in the United States in the 1870s and 1880s were very like those of today—business monopoly, the power of banks and Wall Street speculators, declining income for working people, increasing concentration of wealth in the upper 1 percent, and a two-party system in which both parties were captives to corporate wealth.

John D. HIcks’ classic 1931 book, The Populist Revolt: A History of the Farmers’ Alliance and the People’s Party, told the story of the political revolt of farmers in the Great Plains and the South against that system.  I read this book in hope that it would offer lessons for reform in the present day.

Unlike today, farmers who worked the land were a large percentage of the American people, and a majority in some states.   They organized politically and eventually formed a third party whose leaders were regarded as both dangerous revolutionaries and ridiculous crackpots.  The populist goal — an agricultural economic based on prosperous small independent farmers — was not achieved.

But over time many of their ideas came to be enacted into law.  The lesson of the Populist era is that political reform is more than the art of the possible.  Sometimes it takes leaders who are able to redefine what is possible.


Did the New Deal work?

January 30, 2012

Currently a strong effort is being made to discredit the New Deal by opponents of public works, unemployment insurance and other government programs to revive the economy in recession.

The case against the New Deal is that unemployment never fell to pre-1929 levels until the coming of World War Two.  But by other economic measures, the New Deal was in fact a success.  The top chart above measures Gross Domestic Product in terms of by what percentage it was higher than its low point in March 1933.  The bottom chart above measures industrial production by what percentage it was higher or lower than in October 1929 when the Great Depression began.

The two charts showed that economic recovery began when President Roosevelt took office, and faltered only in 1937 when he decided that his economic recovery program had achieved its goal and did not need to be continued.  Full recovery came in the run-up to World War Two.

Now it is impossible to be certain to what degree recovery was due to the New Deal and to what degree it was due to the natural swing of the economic cycle.   The only way you could have proof one way or the other would be to have two timelines, one with a New Deal and one without, which is impossible outside science fiction.   The case for the New Deal is that economic recovery started to falter in 1937 with President Franklin Roosevelt started to curtail government spending and return to a balanced budget.  The only way you could convince me that the New Deal was futile would be to show me a nation that brought about economic recovery through economic austerity.


Ninjas vs. moms as role models

January 30, 2012

Double click to enlarge

Click on Basic Instructions for more like this.

Hat tip to Balloon Juice.

A pagan fable

January 29, 2012

War had come to an end, but famine came in its place.  There were three men who each stole a sack of corn from different owners, but they were all caught.

The first owner brought his thief to the judge, and the maidens said everywhere that he had done right.

The second owner took the corn away from his thief and let him go in peace.  The maidens said he has done well.

The third owner went to the thief’s house, and when he saw what misery was there, he went and brought a waggon-load of necessaries to relieve their distress.  Frya’s maidens came around him and wrote his deed in the eternal book, and wiped out all his sins.  This was reported to the Eeremoeder, and she had it made known over the whole country.

==From a 13th century manuscript quoted by Making Light.

Newt Gingrich, gridlock and “pay to play”

January 28, 2012

Newt Gingrich created the “pay to play” system by which House of Representatives committee assignments and leadership positions hinge on their ability to raise money for the party.  And he also is as responsible as anyone for the partisan divisions that keep the legislative process in gridlock.

Political scientist Tom Ferguson tells the story.

In the mid-1980s, a group of insurgent Republicans broke with the long established norms governing how the U.S. House of Representatives transacted business.  Led by Newt Gingrich, it derided older Republican House leaders as timid, unimaginative, and too inclined to compromise with Democrats.  Self-styled “revolutionaries” launched vigorous public attacks on Democrats as they trumpeted their own agenda of deregulation, budget cuts, lower taxes, and a baker’s dozen of social issues, from abortion to opposition to all forms of gun control.

Result?  The House boiled over.  Statistical measures of Congressional behavior show that party line votes jumped sharply.

Gingrich and his allies were painfully aware that transforming the GOP’s gains at the presidential level into a true “critical realignment” of the political system as a whole required breaking the Democratic lock on Congress.  So they shattered all records for Congressional fundraising in their drive to get control of the House.  Their success in this and their parallel campaign to rally major parts of the media to their standard are what polarized the system.  The GOP insurgents emphasized fundraising, not just through the usual publicly reported vehicles like the national party committees, but also GOPAC, a political action committee that Gingrich had controlled since 1986, which operated mostly in secret.

In 1992, in the midst of a recession, the Republicans lost the White House. But their dreams of a sweeping political realignment did not die.  In fact, by clearing centrist Republicans out of their perches in the White House, the loss probably helped Gingrich and his allies.

Completely undaunted, Gingrich, Republican National Chair Haley Barbour, and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair Phil Gramm orchestrated a vast national campaign to recapture Congress for the Republicans in the 1994 elections.  With the economy stuck in a “jobless recovery” and Democratic fundraising sputtering, the Republicans won control of both houses of Congress.

The tidal wave of political money they conjured allowed Gingrich, Gramm, Barbour and Co., to brush aside older, less combative center-right Republican leaders and persist in their efforts to roll back the New Deal and remake American society in the image of free market fundamentalism.  Once in power, the Republicans institutionalized sweeping rules changes in the House and the Republican caucus that vastly increased the leadership’s influence over House legislation.  They also implemented a formal “pay to play” system that had both inside and outside components.

On the outside, DeLay and other GOP leaders, including Grover Norquist, who headed Americans for Tax Reform, mounted a vast campaign (the so-called “K Street Project”) to defund the Democrats directly by pressuring businesses to cut off donations and avoid retaining Democrats as lobbyists. Inside the House, Gingrich made fundraising for the party a requirement for choice committee assignments. Senate Republicans, led by Phil Gramm and other apostles of deregulation, emulated the House.

And so, alas, did the Democrats.

Click on Standstill Nation as the New Abnormal for Tom Ferguson’s full article for the Roosevelt Institute.

Click on Our Polarized and Money-Driven Congress: Created Over 25 Years by Republicans (And Quickly Imitated by Democrats) for more on Gingrich’s legacy on the Naked Capitalism web log.

Click on Newt Gingrich and Our Dysfunctional Congress for an article on Gingrich’s legacy by Lou Dubose of The Washington Spectator.

Click on Newt Gingrich Is a Saul Alinsky Republican for an analysis of Newt Gingrich’s political tactics from the Washington Examiner.

Click on Language: a Key Mechanism of Control for Newt Gingrich’s 1996 GOPAC Memo on political rhetoric.

Barack Obama lucky in his opponents

January 28, 2012

Throughout his political career, Barack Obama has been lucky in his political opponents.  When he first ran for Illinois State Senate in 1996, his only opponent in the Democratic primary was Alice Palmer, his predecessor, who only decided at the last minute to run for re-election.  Obama was able to show that two-thirds of the signatures on her nominating petitions were invalid, and so he ran unopposed.  In his district, nomination in a Democratic primary was tantamount to election.

In 2004, when Barack Obama first ran for the U.S. Senate, the two strongest potential candidates, incumbent Republican Peter Fitzgerald and predecessor Democrat Carol Moseley Brown, decided not to run.  The Republican front-runner, Jack Ryan, a Goldman Sachs partner who retired to become a parochial school teacher in inner-city Chicago, was embarrassed when the Chicago Tribune sued successfully to have his sealed divorce papers made public.  The papers revealed that his wife, the actress Jeri Ryan, accused him of pressuring her to go to sex clubs in New York, New Orleans and Paris. Ryan withdrew from the race, and Obama’s opponent was the eccentric Alan Keyes, whom he defeated overwhelmingly.

In 2008, with Barack Obama ran for President, he faced a formidable Democratic primary opponent in Hillary Clinton.  But in the general election, Republican candidate John McCain proved surprisingly inept, and then chose the even more inept Sarah Palin as his running mate.   Given the unpopularity of the George W. Bush administration, it is unlikely any Republican could have one.

Now, in 2010, the likely Republican candidate is either Newt Gingrich, a symbol of political sleaze and corruption, or Mitt Romney, a symbol of corporate wealth and economic privilege.   President Obama’s opponents, and not his record, are his best hope for re-election.

Nate Silver thinks there is a possibility that the Republican nominating convention will choose a candidate other than the ones who’ve signed up for the marathon primary race.   I don’t think that is likely, but it would be a way to nominate a better candidate—that is, one better qualified to be President of the United States.

Click on Some Signs G.O.P. Establishment’s Backing of Romney is Tenuous for Nate Silver’s reasoning in his FiveThirtyEight web log and column.

Worthwhile Obama initiatives

January 27, 2012

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I’m highly critical of President Obama’s record.  But in fairness, I ought to acknowledge the President’s achievements.   These achievements are real, even though some of them have to be qualified with an asterisk (*).

  • President Obama’s economic stimulus program has apparently helped the economic recovery along.  (*The current economic recovery has been weaker than most post-World War Two recoveries, and it will take a long time to get back to pre-recession conditions, which were none too good to begin with.  Nevertheless, the Obama stimulus program was enacted over Republican resistance to doing anything at all, so the President deserves some credit.)
  • President Obama stuck to his promised timetable for withdrawing combat troops from Iraq. (*Non-combat troops and armed U.S. contractors remain in Iraq, and the Obama administration probably would have kept combat troops in Iraq if the Iraqi government had agreed to give them extraterritorial privilege.  Nevertheless, the President did what he promised to do, and he deserves credit.)
  • The new Defense Department budget calls for a reduction in force and a slowdown in growth in military spending, a necessary step to bring overall federal spending under control.  (*Spending will remain above pre-9/11 levels, and spending will increase on Special Forces and unmanned weapons, thereby increasing the President’s power to wage secret wars.  Nevertheless, this is a politically difficult action.)
  • The U.S. Department of Justice has filed a lawsuit to uphold the right of private citizens to make video recordings of police in the performance of their duties.  As Radley Balko wrote on The Agitator, this is a big deal.  Video evidence is usually the only evidence of police abuse of power except the unsupported word of the victim.  Now, the initiative for this may have come more from Attorney-General Eric Holder than from the President himself, but Obama still deserves credit.  No asterisk here.

Click on Pentagon budget set to shrink next year for the Washington Post’s report on President Obama’s proposed military budget.

Click on DOJ Urges Federal Court to Protect the Right to Record Police for background on this lawsuit.

The Obama administration also deserves credit for the repeal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy toward gays in the military, and for compiling and distributing objective data to physicians on the effectiveness of different forms of medical treatment.  None of this, however, outweighs President Obama’s record on war, civil liberties and pandering to Wall Street.

Click on President Obama and his liberal critics for my case against President Obama.


This is not (intended as) a joke

January 27, 2012

Click on Regulations Protect Us for an explanation (sort of) of this sign on Radley Balko’s The Agitator web log.

A dirt biker’s peak experience

January 26, 2012

Human beings are amazing.

Hat tip to Stellar Interesting.

Tom Ferguson on President Obama’s speech

January 25, 2012

The golden age of the Internet

January 25, 2012

“Atticus Finch” writes on BlogTruth that we should enjoy the Internet while we can because its Golden Age, which we’re living in, won’t last forever.  The Internet makes possible a free flow of information and ideas that it is against the interests of the world’s governments to tolerate.

I’m not sure that the casual Internet user fully appreciates the true Internet “golden age” we are experiencing right now.  I mean consider it – we can access information, from any country, about any subject, at any time – with a few strokes of the keyboard.  If that’s not monumental to you, then you don’t fully appreciate the greatest thing to happen to mankind, perhaps ever.  It’s true and completely free, almost instant, multi-source, discussed – knowledge.

Perhaps never has a population been so connected and so empowered.  We no longer have to accept what the media or our own government tells us.  We have instant access to blogs and websites coming from multiple perspectives (even the perspective of the “enemy”) that can paint almost a crystal clear picture of the world that we live in.  You can be more culturally knowledgeable in an evening in your living room than most of mankind was in their entire lives.  This is true power.

Revolutions can be formed, fueled, and organized in moments.  Underfunded and disperse – ideas have power like never before.  All because of this network we have created that spans the earth.  Yet, we think that shopping on or checking our email is the real gift the Internet has provided us.  Don’t let your apathy fool you into believing the Internet and its users aren’t more important than that.  The information we have at our fingertips, no matter how we use it, is power – and Governments all over the world know it.

It’s about control.  How long do you really think this modern day wild west is going to last?  Do you honestly believe that no one is going to try to control the most powerful invention ever created?  How long do you really think you will be able to freely access websites that promote anti-government or even terroristic ideas?  How long do you think sites that offer free music and movie downloads will be able to run?  What about those sites that appose the Government or suggest that we overthrow it?  Will those last?  It won’t be long before the Government says it should be controlled – all to “protect Americans” from things like terrorism and child pornography.

via BlogTruth.

Although the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect Internet Privacy Act are now on hold, John C. Dvorak, a columnist in PC Magazine, thinks it is only a matter of time before the United States government imposes the same controls over the Internet that the Chinese and Iranian governments have.


On the Internet, nobody knows…

January 25, 2012

This is the second anniversary of this web log.  I owe it to my friend David Damico, who made me aware that web hosting services such as WordPress are free, and that no technical knowledge is needed to start a web log.  If I had realized that earlier, I would have started a web log years ago.


In praise of food stamps

January 24, 2012

The father of the today’s food stamp program was George McGovern, a liberal Democratic Senator from South Dakota who is remembered for running for President in 1972 in opposition to the Vietnam War, and being defeated in a landslide by Richard M. Nixon.  He and Senator Robert Dole, a conservative Republican Senator from Kansas, co-sponsored the Food Stamp Act of 1977, which establishes the food stamp program in its present form.

An experimental food stamp program existed during the Great Depression, and a food stamp program was revived during the Great Society era.  First the government gave away surplus food, such as cheese.  Then there was a program for poor people to buy their own food, using government stamps that could be bought for less than the face value.  The problem with that was that some Americans were too poor to afford food stamps.  Even with food stamps, malnutrition and even starvation existed in the United States.  This was addressed  by Senator McGovern’s and Dole’s bill, which gave the food stamps to any eligible family.   This is an achievement to be proud of.

I remember back in the 1990s when Newt Gingrich talked about “McGovernite” morality.  He and McGovern, make an interesting contrast.  George McGovern served his country bravely in wartime, married and was faithful to his college sweetheart, never took drugs and was respected even by his political opponents.  Newt Gingrich avoided military service, cheated on at least two of his three wives and was despised even by his political allies.  But Gingrich had the audacity to set himself up as an arbiter of morality, and there were people who took him seriously.

Click on Newt Gingrich’s Dodgy Attack on Food Stamps for comment from Business Week.

Food stamps and dog whistles

January 24, 2012

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Newt Gingrich on a number of occasions has called President Barack Obama the “food stamp President.”  An interesting choice of words.  Not the “unemployment President” or the “foreclosure President,” but the “food stamp President.”  Does he mean to imply that it matters less that so many people are unable to find work, and have lost their homes, than that there is a program to make sure poor people get enough to eat?  He said President Obama has “put” people on food stamps, but Obama didn’t write the law.  Would Gingrich have him refuse to administer the law as written?

Juan Williams, among others, asked Gingrich if he wasn’t appealing to a negative stereotype of black people.  Gingrich’s reply was that he would be happy to appear before the NAACP and lecture the delegates on why hard work is better than food stamps.

A few facts:

  • More whites than blacks receive food stamps.
  • Nearly half of those who get food stamps have jobs, and still are poor.
  • Most black people have jobs.
  • Jobs are not to be had for the asking (to put it mildly).

The expression “dog whistles” refers to coded words that are understood by a small group but unnoticed by the general public.  When President George W. Bush referred to the Supreme Court being wrong on the Dred Scott pro-slavery decision, members of the Right to Life movement understood him to be alluding to the Roe vs. Wade anti-abortion decision, since they frequently compare the two.

Newt Gingrich’s remarks can’t be called “dog whistles.”  Their appeal to racially prejudiced white people is not hidden or subtle.  It could not be more plain and obvious.

Many conservative Republicans seriously wonder why so few African Americans leave what they call the “Democratic plantation.” But then a lot of them probably think that the average NAACP convention delegate needs to be lectured on the desirability of hard work.

Newt Gingrich also thinks there is a serious problem with overpaid janitors.  In my biased opinion, the average janitor contributes more to the well-being of the American people than Newt Gingrich ever has.

Click on Newt and the Food Stamp President for comment from The Economist.

Click on Real Racists Do Real Things and On Looking Like a Ghetto Crackhead for Ta-Nehisi Coates’ comments.

Click on Slowpoke Comics archive for more cartoons.

President Obama and his liberal critics

January 23, 2012

American Extremists - Disposable issues

via American Extremists.

Andrew Sullivan wrote a much discussed article for Newsweek defending President Obama from criticism by the “unhinged” right and the “purist” left.   He said the conservative critics who claim he is some sort of radical socialist are out of touch with reality, while liberal critics ask too much.  President Obama has accomplished as much as can reasonably be expected, Sullivan said; his critics from the left are like little children complaining because Santa Claus didn’t give them everything on their Christmas lists.  But for me, more fundamental things are at stake.

President Obama threatens the Constitution and the principle of the rule of law by asserting the authority to sign death warrants, to imprison people without trial or without charging them with a crime, to spy on American citizens without warrants and to make it a crime to reveal the government’s abuse of power, as well as committing acts of war on his own authority.  He has committed the nation to endless wars that can only result in endless suffering and endless enemies.  He has propped up a corrupt financial oligarchy rather than to try to reform it.

To my mind, none of these issues ought to divide liberals and conservatives.  Both should defend basic constitutional rights.  At different times in American history, both have opposed foreign interventions.  Principled liberals and principled conservatives should both oppose use of government funds to protect big Wall Street firms from the consequences to their constituencies.

But in fact, the majority of self-identified liberals and the majority of self-identified conservatives are anti-Constitution, anti-peace and pro-Wall Street.  That is why I have a good word for anybody, liberal, conservative or libertarian, to takes a stand against the country’s slide into authoritarianism, militarism and kleptocracy.

These are not questions of whether President Obama has been fair to various constituencies.  They are questions of the continuation of the United States as a free, democratic, sovereign and prosperous nation.  If my fears are wrong, show me how and why they are wrong.  If my fears are not wrong, it is a mistake to pin any hopes on Obama.

True, President Obama is on roughly the same path as his predecessor, main rivals and likely successors.  Since everybody in authority is doing the same bad thing, the problem is systemic and it is futile to blame it on a single individual.  What makes Obama worse than Dick Cheney or Newt Gingrich is that he appealed to the hope and idealism of young people that constructive change could be accomplished through the political process.  That hope has been dashed, and it will be a long time before it is recreated.


Instead of plagues and floods

January 22, 2012

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The Deliberate Observer passed this on from Reflections in a Cloudy Mirror.

I wonder what he advised

January 21, 2012

A year ago President Obama appointed Kodak CEO Antonio M. Perez to his Jobs and Competitiveness Council, whose mission is to advise how to promote job creation and economic growth.  According to Kodak’s web site, he still holds that position.

Kodak and the Rochester mentality

January 21, 2012

Rich Karlgaard of Forbes wote in the Wall Street Journal that Eastman Kodak Co. might not have failed if it hadn’t happened to be located here in Rochester, N.Y.

He said Kodak needed to be in a place where “success is the norm and innovation is built into the ecology.”  And he said Kodak CEOs did not make the bold and drastic decisions that were necessary because of excessive concern for the welfare of their employees and the community.

I heard stuff like this a lot when I was reporting on Kodak for the Democrat and Chronicle in the 1980s.  When Kodak started to falter, Wall Street analysts called for layoffs – the bigger, the better, in their view – and they complained about Kodak’s generous employee benefits and separation packages, which took money they thought rightfully belonged the stockholders.

It is true that Kodak’s operations were much more concentrated in a single city than almost every other major manufacturing employees.  I no longer have the figures on hand, but my recollection is that 40 percent of Kodak’s employees worked in the Rochester area.  Kodak accounted for one out of every eight jobs in the Rochester area, and one out of every three manufacturing jobs.  All of Kodak’s CEOs, from the death of George Eastman in 1932 to the hiring of George Fisher from Motorola in 1993, were promoted through the ranks and spent most of their careers in Rochester.  Kodak and Rochester were very much identified with each other.

During the 1980s, Kodak management was well aware, as Karlgaard noted, that the days of film photography were noted.  CEO Colby H. Chandler tried to incubate new enterprises within the corporate framework, but fostering start-ups within the framework of a larger corporation proved hard to do.  The new enterprises were neither self-reliant nor free of corporate independence.

Perhaps – who can say? – it would have been better for Kodak to launch its digital imaging business in a new location as a separate corporation, far from Rochester corporate headquarters.  Another Rochester-based company, Xerox Corp., did just that, and it didn’t work out.

In a deliberate effort to escape the Rochester mentality.  Xerox relocated its headquarters to Stamford, Conn., and its research laboratories to Palo Alto, Calif., so as not to be limited by the mentality of any one place.  Douglas K. Smith and Robert C. Alexander in their book, Fumbling the Future, wrote that scientists at Palo Alto Research Laboratories in effect invented the personal computer, but Xerox never capitalized on their invention.  Perhaps — who can say? —  if Xerox factories, research laboratories and headquarters had all been in the same place, the divisions of Xerox might have been able to work together to turn research innovations into marketable products.


New additions to my links menus

January 21, 2012


Making Light

Interesting older articles

You Weren’t Meant to Have a Boss

Interesting recent articles

The 1% are the very best destroyers of wealth the world has ever seen.

10 reasons the U.S. is no longer the land of the free

Steve Jobs, Enemy of Nostalgia

Interesting videos

Mike Daisey Examines Hidden Cost of Personal Technology

Tom Ferguson: GOP Needs Divine Intervention

Notable posts

The investment theory of politics

Why I am not a libertarian

Why I am not an Objectivist

Why I call myself a liberal

The imaginary political spectrum

The psychopathic 1 percent

January 20, 2012

The board of the failed Royal Bank of Scotland, which has been bailed out by the British government, wants to give its chairman, Sir Philip Hampton, a $2 million bonus on top of his $2 million salary. A “senior banker” told the Financial Times that Royal Bank employees will be demoralized if he doesn’t get it.

Dick Fuld, the former CEO of failed Lehman Brothers, told his staff he wanted to rip out his competitors’ hearts and eat them while they were still alive.  E-mails revealed Goldman Sachs executives gloating about how they’d unloaded worthless securities on unsuspecting customers.

How to you explain such behavior?  Certain British academics speculate that such people are, literally, psychopaths.

Clive R. Boddy, most recently a professor at the Nottingham Business School at Nottingham Trent University, says psychopaths are the 1 percent of “people who, perhaps due to physical factors to do with abnormal brain connectivity and chemistry” lack a “conscience, have few emotions and display an inability to have any feelings, sympathy or empathy for other people.”

As a result, Boddy argues in a recent issue of the Journal of Business Ethics, such people are “extraordinarily cold, much more calculating and ruthless towards others than most people are and therefore a menace to the companies they work for and to society.”

How do people with such obvious personality flaws make it to the top of seemingly successful corporations? Boddy says psychopaths take advantage of the “relative chaotic nature of the modern corporation,” including “rapid change, constant renewal” and high turnover of “key personnel.”  Such circumstances allow them to ascend through a combination of “charm” and “charisma,” which makes “their behavior invisible” and “makes them appear normal and even to be ideal leaders.”

via Bloomberg.

Boddy admits this is an unproved hypothesis.  But he thinks it wouldn’t hurt to have those whose decisions affect the well-being of other people to undergo a psychological test just to make sure they’re not psychopaths.  Does this seem far-fetched?  Two other British psychologists found that psychological profiles of 39 British senior managers and CEOs matched profiles of the criminally insane.

In a study published by the journal Psychology, Crime and Law, Belinda Board and Katarina Fritzon tested 39 senior managers and chief executives from leading British businesses.  They compared the results to the same tests on patients at Broadmoor special hospital, where people who have been convicted of serious crimes are incarcerated.  On certain indicators of psychopathy, the bosses’s scores either matched or exceeded those of the patients.  In fact, on these criteria, they beat even the subset of patients who had been diagnosed with psychopathic personality disorders.

The psychopathic traits on which the bosses scored so highly, Board and Fritzon point out, closely resemble the characteristics that companies look for.  Those who have these traits often possess great skill in flattering and manipulating powerful people.  Egocentricity, a strong sense of entitlement, a readiness to exploit others and a lack of empathy and conscience are also unlikely to damage their prospects in many corporations.

Via The Guardian

Brian Basham, a British financial journalist, knows of at least one important bank that gave psychological tests not to screen out psychopaths, but to make sure to hire them.


The Internet and its enemies

January 19, 2012

Clay Shirky writes and lectures about the effect of the Internet on society.  He is the author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations and Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age (neither of which I’ve read).

Click on Clay Shirky for his web log.

Hat tip for the video to The Big Picture.

Risky business in the Persian Gulf

January 19, 2012

The Obama administration is drifting toward war with Iran.  Besides the obvious risk of a repeat of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, there are risks of another oil price shock and of confrontation with China.

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Iran is the world’s third-largest oil exporter, behind Saudi Arabia and Russia.  The United States government is trying to organize a world oil embargo against Iran.  Saudi Arabia’s rulers promise to increase their own oil production to make up for Iranian oil being taken off the world market.  Iran’s rulers threaten that if that happens, Iranian forces will close the Strait of Hormuz, through which 20 percent of the world’s oil exports go.

The United States gets most of its oil from domestic production and other Western Hemisphere sources, but the nations of Asia depend on Middle East oil.  The Chinese expect to more than double their consumption of oil within the next 10 years.  The Chinese government has tried to befriend Iran while getting along with the United States.  But if China’s oil supply is jeopardized, there could be a serious confrontation.  Since the United States and China are the world’s two largest oil importers, there could be a confrontation anyway, as oil becomes harder to find and more expensive to produce.

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Nima Khorrami Assi, a security analyst at the Transnational Crisis Project in London, wrote recently that, until now, China and also India have sought to acquire oil supplies through a policy of neutrality, nonintervention and cooperation with all governments.  But he said that the two countries are adopting different policies over the U.S.-Iran confrontation.

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India aligns with the United States, Japan and the Arab kingdoms in the Gulf Cooperation Council, which so many Indians work overseas and which are potential customers for India’s information technology products.  But China, in his view, is joining Russia as a protector of Iran, splitting the world’s major powers into two competing blocs.  I can’t say whether is true, or whether there is any truth in reports that China is supplying Iran with advanced military technology.  But these are things that could be true, or could be true in the future if they aren’t happening now.

A writer for Forbes asserted that if the Strait of Hormuz is closed, even temporarily, world oil prices could triple.  That’s the last thing the United States or the European Union nations need, as they struggle to pull out of the deepest recession since the 1930s.

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But it might not come to that.  Pepe Escobar, roving correspondent for Asia Times, noted that Pakistan has given the go-ahead to a new pipeline which will bring Iranian natural gas to the Indian subcontinent, bypassing any naval blockage..  He noted that Iran has excellent relations not only with China and Russia, but also Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, not to mention Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and other nations of the non-aligned movement.

The great danger, as he sees it, is escalation of the low-intensity war that the United States is waging against Iran into a major military conflict.  The United States is losing economic power, but it still has military power.  The temptation will be to try to leverage military power into economic power.

Click on China and India: Rival Middle East Strategies for Nima Khorrami Assi’s article for Al Jazeera English.

Click on The myth of an isolated Iran for Pepe Escobar’s article for the Asia Times of Hong Kong, reprinted by Salon.

Click on Iran’s Real Weapon of Mass Destruction Is Oil Prices for Daniel Fisher’s article in Forbes.

Click on Pakistan speeds pursuit of Iranian pipeline, defying U.S. for a report in McClatchy Newspapers.

Copyright, censorship and the Internet

January 18, 2012

Copyright infringement over the Internet is a real problem.  If I was an independent movie maker, struggling to make a living, I wouldn’t want to see free copies of my movie being downloaded without receiving any compensation.  But giving the federal government new powers is not a good solution to this problem.

Congress is considering two bills – the Stop Online Piracy Act in the House of Representatives and the Protect Internet Privacy Act in the Senate – intended to prevent Americans from having access for foreign Internet sites that don’t observe U.S. copyright laws.

The problem with this is that a web site with thousands of pages could lose its domain name if just one of the pages linked to a prohibited site. The entertainment industry has interpreted copyright in an extensive way.  Girl Scouts have been prohibited from singing copyrighted songs around campfires, and home videos of children have been taken down from YouTube because copyrighted music was playing in the background.

The broad provisions of the law would be virtually impossible to comply with, and experience shows that when you have laws that are impossible to obey, they will be enforced selectively.  You can imagine how easy it would be to drum up a copyright infringement issue on a site that links to Wikileaks.

The legislation is supported by the Motion Picture Association of America and Rupert Murdoch, head of Fox News, the Wall Street Journal and other media companies, and opposed by the heads of Google, Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, Reddit and other on-line companies and organizations.  Because powerful corporate interests are involved on both sides, and because enforcement of the law could inconvenience middle-class white Americans, it has drawn more controversy than what to me are more serious civil liberties issues.

But given the record of the U.S. government in the past couple of decades, and also given the record of Hollywood and the music industry in enforcing their supposed rights, we Americans should be wary of giving the government new arbitrary powers.  Sometimes it’s better to live with a problem than to do things that will make matters worse.

Click on How PIPA and SOPA Violate White House Principles Supporting Free Speech and Innovation for a report from the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Click on How SOPA would affect you: FAQ for analysis by Declan McCullough, chief correspondent for CNET.

Click on SOPA and PIPA: Just the Facts and SOPA explained: what it is and why it matters for discussions of the pros and cons of the legislation by writers for PC World and CNNMoneyTech.

The United States government has been critical of foreign governments, such as China and Iran, for blocking their citizens’ access to prohibited knowledge and ideas on the Internet.  Yet these laws would create enforcement machinery identical to those countries, although for a different stated purpose.  It is a big act of faith, requiring ignorance of history, to think this machinery would not be misused.

[Update]  Click on Why we need to stop SOPA and PIPA for the viewpoint of the head of the MIT Media Laboratory.