Friday, March 27, 2009


A brief reflection on this history and present circumstances drives a plain conclusion: the full restoration of private credit will take a long time. It will follow, not precede, the restoration of sound private household finances. There is no way the project of resurrecting the economy by stuffing the banks with cash will work. Effective policy can only work the other way around.
-- No Return to Normal by James K. Galbraith

...especially about the future

Other studies have confirmed the general sense that expertise is overrated. In one experiment, clinical psychologists did no better than their secretaries in their diagnoses. In another, a white rat in a maze repeatedly beat groups of Yale undergraduates in understanding the optimal way to get food dropped in the maze. The students overanalyzed and saw patterns that didn’t exist, so they were beaten by the rodent.
-- Nicholas Kristof

One of the last times I tried in public this I was wrong

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Listen up

At first sight, the recommendations from Stern and the Potsdam people (Towards a Global Green Recovery) seem to be almost as sensible as one might reasonably expect.  But will the G20 leaders listen?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009


A few days ago China called for a new global reserve currency. Zhou Xiaochuan, the governor People’s Bank, 'said the proposal would require “extraordinary political vision and courage” and acknowledged a debt to John Maynard Keynes, who made a similar suggestion in the 1940s.'

And in today's FT, Nicholas Stern calls for an institution to make unbiased global risk assessments.

Shafted again

They don't use the D word, but neither Martin Wolf nor James Galbraith is impressed by the Geithner plan.
If this scheme works, a number of the fund managers are going to make vast returns. I fear this is going to convince ordinary Americans that their government is a racket run for the benefit of Wall Street.
writes Wolf.
What’s not to like about [the plan], if you’re a big bank?
says Galbraith, who continues
The ultimate objective, and in President Obama’s own words, the test of this plan, is whether it will “get credit flowing again.”...Short answer: It won’t.

Already catastrophic

Pete Postelthwaite as the last man on earth may make a useful dramatic framing device in The Age of Stupid, but it is hardly realistic. More likely, perhaps, is more of the world looking like this (also reported here).

[P.S. 3 April: Often one to surprise, Paul Collier is optimistic about Haiti.]

Tuesday, March 24, 2009


We are shamelessly succumbing to Chinese pressure. I feel deeply distressed and ashamed.
- Desmond Tutu

Monday, March 23, 2009


It’s as if the president were determined to confirm the growing perception that he and his economic team are out of touch, that their economic vision is clouded by excessively close ties to Wall Street. And by the time Mr. Obama realizes that he needs to change course, his political capital may be gone.
-- Paul Krugman

see also Maureen Dowd on the 'shafters of the universe'.

Sunday, March 22, 2009


"I can't believe that people are still walking around just doing their jobs, going about their lives."

So here was a very senior diplomat in effect wondering why more people were not taking to the streets in greater numbers
-- Mark Mardell

Holy war

An investigation by reporter Uri Blau, published on Friday in Haaretz, disclosed how Israeli soldiers were ordering T-shirts to mark the end of operations [in Gaza], featuring grotesque images including dead babies, mothers weeping by their children's graves, a gun aimed at a child and bombed-out mosques.

Another T-shirt designed for infantry snipers bears the inscription "Better use Durex" next to a picture of a dead Palestinian baby, with his weeping mother and a teddy bear beside him. A shirt designed for the Givati Brigade's Shaked battalion depicts a pregnant Palestinian woman with a bull's-eye superimposed on her belly, with the slogan, in English, "1 shot, 2 kills".
-- Gaza war crime claims gather pace as more troops speak out

Saturday, March 21, 2009

A focus of evil

Evil is a fascination for us. It helps focus all the evil outside on a specific person. That's the one that's bad; we're the good ones. So it helps you to feel good and it serves some atavistic need in all of us. This is probably why executions were - and in some cases still are - public.
-- Heidi Kastner

Friday, March 20, 2009

Spring buzz

This morning an enormous bumblebee flew into my shed. This, more than anything so far, seems like a sign of spring, as clear as the visit of a dragonfly seems like a sign of high summer.

I helped the bumblebee out again and on its way...

Not winning

Bagram is just 80km (50 miles) from Kabul, but most coalition troops and foreign workers fly between the two in huge military transport planes that barely take off before it is time to land again. That tells you all you need to know about the state of security in Afghanistan, more than seven years into the war.
Julian Borger

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

'Not MY job'

James Lovelock warned at least eight years ago that, collectively, we have hardly begun to get or act together on climate change and global governance. John Beddington seems to agree. And when it comes to what really matters we are still stuck in a giant game of pass the parcel. Three examples this week: Europe shows every sign of procrastination/avoidance of its commitments to poor nations; China blames consuming nations (even though it is using them to grow rich); and Shell pulls out of solar and wind.

George Monbiot wonders what is going on at Shell. But surely there is no mystery. The corporation is following its bliss, aka money. At least its interest in 'new generation' biofuels appears to be honest (and these fuels may even be relatively good news). For decency's sake, however, Shell should cease to pretend that CCS will mitigate emissions from tar sands in the foreseeable future.

Here's to civil society pressure and a heap more technology.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Fear, but not despair

I enjoy John Schellnhuber's deadpan style as much as anyone, and his warning should be taken seriously.

It's also good to see Yadvinder Malhi arguing against a counsel of despair regarding the Amazon:
I must say I find it frustrating that the gloomiest take on news gets such a big profile. This is based on one model, and that model has flaws (especially its temperature sensitivity that seems too great..., and its rainfall that seems too low... The danger is that that such apparent bad news makes all the efforts to conserve the Amazon forests worthless (why bother saving them if they are already doomed?), and encourages disengagement and hopelessness rather than action. If that conclusion was based on solid empirical science then so be it, but when such a story goes out on a pure model study (not yet peer-reviewed) with significant imperfections, it may do a lot of damage in the real world.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Some moments of happiness

this afternoon: planting my first seeds of the year while listening to Hallelujah Junction by John Adams.

Scams and jams

Yesterday Bernie Madoff pleaded guilty to the largest investor fraud by a single person.

Last week Elizabeth Warren explained how Henry Paulson (Time's Person of the Year for 2008) misrepresented a no-strings, no oversight $250bn 'subsidy' to the best and brightest in U.S. banking.

John Cassidy asks whether Obama is bold enough to nationalise the banks.

Paul Kennedy wonders about the wisdom of "allocating more money to buying bad debts and rescuing bad banks than investing in job creation", and contemplates a United States plunging into "levels of indebtedness that could make Philip II of Spain’s record seem austere by comparison"

Extermination and genocide in law

There is a contradiction between the [International Criminal Court] judges' allowing of the charge of "extermination" (as a "crime against humanity") against Sudanese government forces and their rejection of the genocide charge. If there is reasonable evidence to suggest that Sudanese forces pursued a policy of extermination against some Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa, then this is surely prima facie support - even on a narrow "physical" definition of group destruction - for the charge of genocide against these groups "in part" (as the convention puts it).

In the end, however, the judges' key argument centres on the same point that the [International Court of Justice] used to reject (with the exception of Srebrenica) the claim that Serbian forces had committed genocide in Bosnia: the existence of a "special intention" for genocide... This rarefied legal concept of intention means that courts feel able to reject genocide claims even when the perpetrators manifestly intended to destroy the "enemy" society in whole or part, and even when they have attempted to physically exterminate some of its people.
-- from Sudan, the ICC and genocide: a fateful decision by Martin Shaw

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Health, climate change, politics

Scholarship on hyperbolic discounting has found that individuals and firms that recognize it can counteract it. That is, they can create or institutionalize policies or practices today to “constrain their future selves.” For instance, a reformed smoker may pay someone on Monday to hide her cigarettes on Thursday, when she knows that severe cravings will make her unable to trust her future self. Hence the reformed smoker on Monday makes a perfectly rational choice, recognizing she is subject to hyperbolic discounting, to fight Thursday’s cravings.
-- Ben Cashore, drawing on earlier co-authored work
European leaders recognise that rich countries must provide funds to developing nations so that they can reduce greenhouse gas emmissions and adapt to climate change. So far, they have not put a single euro on the table. Each country’s contribution towards a climate bailout plan is based on its ability to pay and its level of responsibility in causing climate change. Based on this, European governments should contribute €35 billion a year by 2020, the equivalent of just €1.30 a week per European citizen. The price of a bus ticket.

In spite of our best efforts, ministers continued to dither yesterday. Once all of the protesters had been arrested, they managed to leave the building without committing a cent of public money. Instead they had made an empty promise for investments from the private sector, which they can neither predict nor control.
- from an e mail from Greenpeace International, 12 March

Evidence-based climate care

In recommending "talk of energy independence, and the potential for new enterprise" rather than confrontation with climate denialists, George Marshall and some psychologists reinforce and improve a position established elsewhere for more than a decade (although who in Britain now remembers New Labour's environmental modernisation agenda?). This is timely and welcome. 

Looking ahead, how about more rhetoric and substance for 'evidence-based environmentalism', modeled in part on evidence-based medicine (which started to gel in the early '90s, and has been popularised more recently by things like Ben Goldacre's Bad Science column)?

In the U.S., the 'new' approach would fit nicely with healthcare reform itself, where (as Tara Parker-Pope and others note) a $2.5 trillion industry leaves some 46 million people out in the cold and favours expensive treatments over effective ones.

The proper skeptic

Hume's scepticism, though "mitigated" is very real. Hume is often held up as a hero of the enlightenment, and so he should be. But he had just about as pessimistic a view about the power of reason it is possible to have without abandoning it as altogether useless. In contrast, some self-proclaimed modern heirs of the enlightenment talk as though science and reason were two invincible superheroes, capable of leading us to certain truth. Hume is a challenge to this complacency, as well as to the beliefs of many religious believers.
 -- Julian Baggini concludes a concise series on Hume and faith with lines that make the great Scottish philospher sound like a wiser version of John N. Gray

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

England, an elegy

Ideas of race, tribe and religion, which have played a dangerous part in continental politics, have also shaped English identity. But they were qualified and moderated by the concept of home. England was first and foremost a place – though a place consecrated by custom.
–- Roger Scruton
[Sinclair] talks about the poet John Clare, who as a child walked beyond his knowledge, beyond what he knew, only to find that he no longer knew who he was because the birds and the trees didn't know him. "This is what I feel about this landscape. I've walked out into it so often that it accepts me. Bits of stone and river accept me, and I know myself by that. If the landscape changes, then I don't know who I am either. The landscape is a refracted autobiography. As it disappears you lose your sense of self.
-- from a profile of Iain Sinclair.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Monday, March 09, 2009


Unfortunately for writers, there's no intellectual equivalent of the sexual climax; they don't always know when they've finished.
-- Hilary Mantel

Congratulations on having read this far, says Charlie Brooker.

Saturday, March 07, 2009


When Leila usually makes custard it's quite lumpy, but this looked pretty smooth.
-- Sheila Deen

Wednesday, March 04, 2009


Bob Herbert argues for more rapid draw down in Afghanistan (and Iraq). 

Ashraf Ghani argues that Afghanistan is not lost.

William Dalrymple on instability in Pakistan