Monday, April 30, 2007

Two more additions to the Blog Roll

Dani Rodrik - development economics, political economy and globalisation from one of the best.

Economist' View - (belated thanks for this to George Darroch)


I was in Australia visiting friends on ANZAC day this year, so didn't really dwell on the public holiday and its significance as I have done in the past. But having read some thoughtful comments on it in the New Zealand blogosphere (particularly Span's) I thought I'd try and write something while my brain was at least on the edge of ticking away.

First up, the obvious point: ANZAC day makes me sad; war makes me sad. Recently I've been reading one of Anna Politskovskaya's books on Chechnya, and with every page the human suffering associated with that conflict leaves me staggered. And that's just one small war amongst all the others that have burnt through the pages of the histories of our last 100 years. World War 1, meanwhile, makes me acutely sad, in part because of its scale, but also its shear futility. Whenever I travel round New Zealand I feel this sadness as I come across the statues and the long list of names that bear witness to people, families and, in some cases, whole communities gutted by war.

When I think of World War 1 (every ANZAC day included) I also feel angry. As far as I can tell it was an utterly needless war, waged by European elites over alliances. They didn't give a toss about their working class (let alone ours) who they set away to die like cattle. The pointlessness of World War 1 doesn't detract from the sacrifice and bravery of our soldiers (not to mention their wives and kids who had to soldier on without them) but it does bestow upon us, those who ought to have learned the lessons of that war, the obligation to save for ever conflict as something of last resort.

Which brings me to my third set of emotions regarding ANZAC day: unease. I think the ceremony on the day is fine, and the sober, sorrowful tone resonates as much with me as I think it does with most New Zealanders. But there is always the risk that commemorations of war can be co-opted to become celebrations of militarism. I'm not suggesting that this is happening with ANZAC day, but I do think it is something that we want to be vigilant about.

So would I ever consider protesting ANZAC day? Maybe, one day, if the ceremonies started to be dominated by jingoism. Possibly even, if I lived in Australia. It would be pretty hard to stand silently through a ceremony when John Howard was mouthing platitudes about never again.

But unlike Anarchafairy et. al., in the New Zealand case, I don't have a problem with our current troop deployments (most significantly Solomon Islands, Timor Leste, and Afghanistan). Indeed, to be honest I can't even fathom where they (the folks) are coming from.

I write this as someone who opposed both invasions of Iraq, and who - possibly mistakenly - opposed the invasion of Afghanistan and military action in Kosovo. And as someone who is instinctively anti-war: that is, in trying to make my mind up about the legitimacy of any conflict, I always factor into the equation the fact that war is utterly fucked and ought to be avoided at all costs.

I'm also incredibly anxious about New Zealand soldiers being placed in harms way. Not because I place any higher value an their lives than anyone else's, but because I think that our own domestic social contract, particularly the part that they've signed up to, requires a good reason for them to risk their lives.

At the same time though, I think that our soldiers are currently doing considerable good. In Afghanistan, whatever I might have thought of the original conflict, I find it hard to believe that our soldiers, who are primarily in a non combat role, are doing more harm than good. Nor do I believe that if all international forces suddenly pulled out of Afghanistan the country would suddenly lapse into a better state. This is not to say that I agree with everything the US military, in particular, are doing there, but rather that I don't see much positive in a resurgent Taliban or civil war (two distinct possibilities in the wake of troop withdrawal).

In the case of Timor Leste and Solomon islands, while I think the way the peacekeeping missions are run leaves something to be desired and while, in the case of Timor Leste, I am deeply suspicious of the motives of the Australians, I still don't think that pulling the troops out would achieve any good. I think that this is particularly the case in Solomons where, for all the shortcomings of RAMSI the inescapable fact is that troops brought to an end a horrible conflict and have offered some hope of moving forward. I'd happily campaign for better engagement in Solomons but not for disengagement. I just can't see how that would improve the lives of the average Solomon Islander.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Why We Need to Give More Aid

As noted below, courtesy of Idiot/Savant I guest-posted on NoRightTurn a week and a bit ago making the case for increased ODA levels. Last weekend I followed that up with a post explaining why common arguments against giving more aid were mistaken.

Post 1: Still Failing the Poor
Post 2: The Case Against the Case Against Aid


Via Economist's View Fobert Frank makes the case against, the case against progressive taxation. N Gregory Mankiw ("you may remember from your first year economics text/my time as chairperson of George Bush's Economic advisers) doesn't like what he hears. But rather decently offers Frank the right of reply.

If they existed, regular readers of this blog would know that I'm something of a fan of progressive taxation regimes. So it wouldn't be a surprise to find out that I side with Frank. But, setting that aside for a minute, the most salient point is that there is a genuine debate about these things.

Which is something that you wouldn't learn if you relied on Treasury's Briefing to an Incoming Government. #######

Sad, Sad, Sad

I can't help but read the life story of Liviu Librescu, who survived the Holocaust, but died saving his students in the Virginia Tech Massacre, and feel in a sad, and totally irrational, way that there ought to be a limit to the amount of evil that one person can be expected to face in their life.

Just like a thread on Kiwiblog...

Now, no doubt, there is much of value in discussions where the debate centres around articulate puns (Liar-bour) and sentences strewn with invective and the word 'socialist'. As such, I think we can all be thankful that the comments boxes at Kiwiblog keep going strong. However, just occasionally, I actually enjoy learning something from what I read online. And, so it was that, a couple of nights ago, I devoured the discussion on supply side economics from Economist's View.

It started here and there were follow ups both at Economist's View (they are listed at the bottom of this post) and at Brad Delong's blog. Of course it helps when your commenters are people like Paul Krugman, James Galbraith, Barkley Rosser and Dean Baker but there's a whole heap of interesting stuff from other people too. A very good read.

Read this. Read this.

In the London Review of Books a lucid and cogent (it's the LRB darling, things can't merely be clear and well argued) essay on climate change. Not just the science, not just the potential consequences, not just the politics, but also the psychology. Very interesting. Not to mention terrifying, in that long dark shadow that is just beginning to fall kindof way.


We deeply don’t want to believe this story. The fourth report of the IPCC makes it clear that we are right not to want to. The Summary for Policymakers is a strange document, one which bears out a comment Norman Mailer once made to the effect that ‘form is the record of a war.’ In this case, the war is that between science and the politics of global warming, which is powerfully present in every line of the SPM, mainly in the form of its total absence. The way the SPM works is that the scientists write a report, and then are put together in a room with representatives of the world’s governments, and between them they agree a text that has full support, the idea being that there is nothing left that can be contested: that the SPM has the full support of all the relevant scientists and their governments. Since the governments in question include the administrations of George W. Bush, King Abdullah, John Howard and Hu Jintao, this is not a straightforward process; in fact there is something heroic about the firm stand the SPM manages to take. The price for this is that the SPM makes no policy recommendations of any kind, a fact which has drawn some negative comment; but the consensus on the basic facts is so remarkable that we can live without the unenforceable policy advice.

The first crucial component of the scientific consensus concerns a figure called the ‘climate sensitivity’. This is the amount by which the climate will grow warmer if the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere doubles. It is not a straightforward figure to calculate because many of the values change as the temperature changes; water vapour, for instance, is an important greenhouse gas, and as the oceans warm, water vapour in the atmosphere increases both in amount and in its greenhouse properties. Arrhenius thought that it would take three thousand years for our activities to double the level of CO2, which in 1750, before the Industrial Revolution, was about 280 parts per million (ppm). By now the level is 379ppm and rising sharply. As the Chinese and Indian economies take off and global levels of CO2 begin to rise even more quickly, it seems a racing certainty that we will achieve that level of doubled emissions some time this century; at which point the ‘climate sensitivity’ will become the most important number in the world. So the fact that according to the IPCC ‘an assessed likely range’ for climate sensitivity can now be given ‘for the first time’ is of more than academic interest. That figure is likely – between 66 and 90 per cent probable – to be between 2 and 4.5ºC. The best estimate is for climate sensitivity to be 3ºC. ‘Values substantially higher than 4.5ºC cannot be excluded.’

The consequences of this are listed pretty dryly in the report: cold days and nights will be warmer and fewer, hot ones hotter and more frequent – this is ‘virtually certain’, i.e. more than 99 per cent probable. Increased frequency of heatwaves and ‘heavy precipitation events’ is ‘very likely’ – 90 to 95 per cent. That means that a greater proportion of rain will come in the form of downpours. There will be more and bigger droughts, more and bigger tropical storms, and more and bigger floods – all ‘likely’, 66 to 90 per cent. The sea level will rise between 18 and 59 centimetres, mainly as a result of the ocean expanding as it warms. Increased melting in the Greenland and Antarctic is not included in these figures because there is not enough of a consensus to include its effects in the modelling. That isn’t reassuring. The Greenland ice sheet holds enough water to raise global sea levels by seven metres – which would mean the end of, for instance, London, Miami, the Netherlands and Bangladesh.

What does the picture painted by the SPM mean? The short answer is that no one knows. Although we know more about many aspects of the climate than we once did, the fact is that we are entering a period of climatic change outside the experience of recorded human history, without a confident sense of what those changes will entail. If the events listed above are the whole of the story it doesn’t seem too bad: hotter days and nights, storms and droughts, sound like things we should be able to endure. The trouble is that the global climate is a system of such complexity that we can’t model in sufficient detail what the effects are. The last time CO2 levels were as high as they are today, in the last interglacial 125,000 years ago, sea levels were between four and six metres higher than they are today – a figure which we can take as a proxy for changes which in most respects are beyond imagining. What would happen if the harvest failed all across Europe or the US or Africa? What would happen if it failed again the next year, and the year after that? What would happen if the rain-and-meltwater pattern in the Yangtze valley, the core of Chinese agriculture, changed? What would happen if the glacial run-off from the Himalayas, which supplies most of India with its water, were to change? What would happen if the behaviour of El Niño were to become so unpredictable that agriculture in the Southern Hemisphere became unsustainable at current population levels? What would happen if those glaciers were to melt away? What would happen if the Gulf Stream (the Atlantic’s ‘meridional overturning circulation’, as it is scientifically known) were to shut down suddenly – the Day after Tomorrow disaster scenario? The prediction is that Western Europe would become 8ºC cooler, about the temperature of Canada. But Canada produces enough food to feed 30 million people and enough grain to feed 60 million. Western Europe has a population of about 450 million. So what would they eat?[†] Hurricane Katrina gave us a glimpse of how quickly a meteorological event can destroy a city in the richest country in the world. We may be moving towards a future in which events like that come to seem commonplace. Anything in the paper today, darling? Not much – oh, all the Dutch drowned.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut

So it went; his own tale almost as strange and sad as those he wrote.

Wolf in the World Bank's Clothing

Leftwing supporters of the invasion of Iraq have often made the claim that Paul Wolfowitz represented the true spirit of Neo-Conservatism - a man with a genuine democratic, humanitarian instinct. They contrast this with the greed of say Dick Cheney.

Personally, I have always been rather sceptical of this - Wolfowitz seemed to do little to champion the cause of human rights when he was ambassador to Indonesia. Still I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt when he started at the World Bank (there were lots of people I would have preferred but I thought I'd reserve my judgment of him once his performance became clear).

So I read with some interest this rather generous review of his tenure in the New Yorker, once again willing to at least consider the positive picture painted.

And then I read this.

Somehow it just seems so symptomatic of what went wrong in Iraq. Putative champions of democracy and anti-corruption being undemocratic and corrupt themselves.


Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Politics Of Climate Change

What ever else you might say about right wing climate change deniers, you have to give them credit in one particular area: they've sure read their Orwell.

The trouble is, rather than being chilled by concepts such as doublethink and newspeak, it appears that they were actually taking notes.

So when you get a Bush administration appointee (who wasn't a climate scientist but just happened to once work for the American Petroleum Institute) editing government reports to cast doubt on the science of climate change, that's just fine and dandy. But when you get scientists, who's primary incentive - one would think - is to get things right, publishing papers with transparent methodologies in peer reviewed journals this is political dishonesty and conspiracy of the highest order.

Poor old Eric Blair must be spinning in his grave (hmmmm perhaps - borrowing from Brad Delong - we have an alternative power source here).

Anyhow, George Monbiot has a column in the Guardian discussing how this relates to the current IPCC report:

The drafting of reports by the world's pre-eminent group of climate scientists is an odd process. For months scientists contributing to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change tussle over the evidence. Nothing gets published unless it achieves consensus. This means that the panel's reports are conservative - even timid. It also means that they are as trustworthy as a scientific document can be.

Then, when all is settled among the scientists, the politicians sweep in and seek to excise from the summaries anything that threatens their interests.

The scientists fight back, but they always have to make concessions. The report released on Friday, for example, was shorn of the warning that "North America is expected to experience locally severe economic damage, plus substantial ecosystem, social and cultural disruption from climate change related events".

This is the opposite of the story endlessly repeated in the rightwing press: that the IPCC, in collusion with governments, is conspiring to exaggerate the science. No one explains why governments should seek to amplify their own failures. In the wacky world of the climate conspiracists no explanations are required. The world's most conservative scientific body has somehow been transformed into a conspiracy of screaming demagogues.

This is just one aspect of a story that is endlessly told the wrong way round. In the Sunday Telegraph and the Daily Mail, in columns by Dominic Lawson, Tom Utley and Janet Daley, the allegation is repeated that climate scientists and environmentalists are trying to "shut down debate". Those who say that man-made global warming is not taking place, they claim, are being censored.

Something is missing from their accusations: a single valid example...

And the award for best opening sentence in an essay goes to...

...Jonathan Raban for this effort in the New York Review of Books:

Like so many parties that go on past their proper bedtime, Karl Rove's Republican Party has lately begun to break out in fights, as neocon theorists, Goldwater-style libertarians, the corporations, and grassroots Christian fundamentalists come to the aggravating discovery that they're more defined by their differences than by what they hold in common.

This is from a review of a book by Andrew Sullivan, and like every other essay I've ever read from Raban it leaves me so envious of his graceful style and turn of phrase.

Monday, April 09, 2007


Thanks to the generous Idiot/Savant I have a guest post up on Norightturn. The post makes the case for meeting point seven ODA targets. Hopefully, over the next few days I'll write up a follow up post countering the counter arguments.