Economics and similar, for the sleep-deprived

A subtle change has been made to the comments links, so they no longer pop up. Does this in any way help with the problem about comments not appearing on permalinked posts, readers?

Update: seemingly not

Update: Oh yeah!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Irish Times does Zambia

Oh check it out, Mary Fitzgerald of the Irish Times is in Zambia and filing copy, mainly about the Chinese investment angle, but I suppose that this is the big story. Not too much Afrobollocks present either, as far as I can see. From the "god, are you still alive?" files, Kenneth Kaunda endorses Chinese policy in Africa - I am pretty sure that this is by way of an intervention in electoral politics but not sure on which side - certainly his claim that the MMD government has stoked anti-Chinese feeling isn't true - that was Sata.

The interesting thing for me in the Fitzgerald pieces is that she's identified the key issue here - is China in Africa best analysed as a colonial power? I don't think so - I think it's something more modern. My guess is that China sees Africa as a great big lump of copper, cobalt and hydrocarbons with a thin layer of sand and grass over it, and some more or less irrelevant people hanging around on top of the sand who are only of interest in so far as they are involved in the main work of shifting the natural resources to China. I think that this is where we're going wrong in trying to deal with "Chinese influence in Africa" - we're assuming a) that the government of China gives a fuck about things which it doesn't and, of course b) that we have a role in "dealing with" things when we don't.
4 comments this item posted by the management 8/27/2008 03:38:00 AM
Appalachian Controlee

I read "Deer Hunting With Jesus" by Joe Bageant over the weekend - it wasn't a bad book. But he does have a whole damn chapter on a persistent bugbear of this blog - the Scots Irish, those lovable drunken belligerent ginger bigots who are responsible for all the worst things in American culture, but gawd bless 'em, they saved our asses and if it wasn't for their heroic manly ways we'd all be speaking German.

It just struck me while I was reading it that there's a clear counterexample to show why this is bullshit. Do you know what country is chock fucking full of Lowlands Scots? Canada.
12 comments this item posted by the management 8/27/2008 01:33:00 AM

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Congratulations to our Olympic heroes!

I suppose we can all go back to caring about Tibet now.
6 comments this item posted by the management 8/26/2008 10:22:00 AM

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Meanwhile, in Ethiopia

Just in passing, this sort of thing is the reason why I downscaled Project Africa to Project Zambia. It is very clear that Ethiopia is on the brink of a very nasty famine, but understanding anything beyond this would take a vast amount of work and the consumption and digestion of bushels of not very nutritious Afrobollocks[1]. A few things that strike the attention:

First, the combination of green fields and famine is not "ironic" or "strange" - it's pretty much fundamental to the whole question. It means that any explanation of the famine based on the failure of the spring rains has to be wrong. If grass is growing, then grain is growing, or at least, if grain isn't growing then there's some other reason why than drought. So the Ethiopian government are, as far as I can see, at the very least not being totally straight here.

It looks to me like a classic Sen famine, with the root cause in (among other things) the fact that wine is more profitable than wheat[2], being dressed up as an ecological rather than economic crisis in order to save everyone's blushes. I don't doubt that the Meles government have screwed things up much more badly than they needed to, and suspect that their recent Somalian adventure might have caused them to take their eye off the ball. But it seems as if the famine is being used by the global punditosphere to twist their arm a little bit further up their back in the direction of neoliberal reform. Viz, from the article:

Farmer Mohammed Kedir, 23, dreams of the day when he can own his own plot of land. If he owned the land, Kedir said, he might experiment with more-profitable crops, and he said he'd take better care of the soil.

"But if the government can take my land at any time," he said, "what's the point of trying so hard?"

"Guess I'll just sit here 'n' starve to death", he presumably then added. I mean, I'm sure he does dream of a sensible land reform in Ethiopia, but doesn't this obvious propaganda stick in the craw a bit? Mohammed Kedir presumably doesn't dream of the day that he gets murdered in a horrible civil war over land disputes, but I guess the guy from the Chicago Tribune never asked him that one.

Bonus points for the mention of "the Chinese model" in a country that's so utterly a US catspaw in the region, by the way - the nefarious representative of the PRC is fast becoming a stock Afrobollocks character, along with the poor little starving person, the Nigerian fraudster, the Harvard-educated hope of his country, the "tribal chief" and the James Bond villainesque President for Life (with proverbial "Swiss bank account", natcherally; the Caymans, Channel Isles etc apparently have zero market share with African dicators according to Western hack journalists), the bright-eyed and impractical aid worker and the rascally international banker.

It's not so much that deregulation and land reform are bad ideas - quite the opposite. I'm more worried here that the incessant habit of the neoliberal world to hang them on any passing news story is more or less bound to diminish their own credibility. This is a classic example of a long term solution to a short term problem, coupled with a domestic solution to a fundamentally global problem. We all knew back in March that the sharp increase in soft commodities prices was going to cause famines - now here we are in August and it is causing famines. This isn't new information.

As I've argued before (but never in these precise words), the big underlying trouble with Globollocks in general and Afrobollocks in particular is that neoliberal commentators have a completely, utterly 180 degrees wrong assessment of their own credibility with the people that they're talking too. Someone like Tom Friedman clearly believes that he can lecture the Third World to his heart's content, and they will lap it up. He even seems to reckon that he can glide over a few difficult proofs and stick in a couple of non sequiturs, and his basic message (which I reiterate, is not even necessarily a bad one) will get across - the Africans will treat him as having super-credibility because he plays for Team USA, the winningest team in town.

Actually, of course, in a lot of cases people from a background in the developed world start from the position of a very severe handicap in the credibility stakes; they get negative benefit of doubt. Making the case for market reform has to be done carefully and slowly, with no short cuts, no promises of miracle solutions and overall respect for local politics - the general project of trying to make developing world farmers take on structural reforms that you could never get through the House of Representatives has been the own goal of the century for the neolib project. (There is, by the way, no book token prize for the first person to claim that neoliberals don't underestimate the difficulty of transition, or that they don't oversell their case - look at the italicised quote above). The one thing that one surely can't afford to do in a communicative situation like this, is to lie.

[1] For example, this article by Rosemary Righter actually has quite a lot of useful factual information in it. But in order to get the ounce of facts, you have to swallow a ton of Afrobollocks. In no particular order, having covered the 1984 famine does not make you an expert on agriculture now, trends in "food produced per head since 1984" is clearly not a useful metric in a country going through a population explosion (children don't produce food, but nor do they consume anything like as much as a working adult), food produced per head is not the be-all and end-all anyway (for example, the flower and coffee plantations that generate so much of Ethiopia's hard currency exports don't produce food), and it really doesn't make sense to both praise Meles as a Western-oriented reformer and castigate him as an old-line Marxist; the reason he hasn't changed the Ethiopian system of land tenure is perhaps less to do with him being "purblind" than that land reform is difficult. I don't want to sound too critical because the Righter article is actually not bad as a statement of the Malthusian position (which is the underlying long term issue here and the one that I don't know enough about Ethiopia to have a view on), but a lot of it really could have been cut out without loss.

[2] And thus, it makes economic sense for Australian wheat farmers to sell their water rights to vineyards and not grow a crop this year, which is what they've done in large numbers. This isn't the only supply shock that's hit the wheat market this year, but it's the one I'm using as a colourful anecdote in this blog post.
14 comments this item posted by the management 8/20/2008 07:04:00 AM

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Levy Mwanawasa dies

Just come across the wires. Frankly I didn't have much time for him for most of his Presidency - he seemed to mean well and was not personally dishonest, but achieved very little, being constantly bogged down in an insoluble argument between what was politically possible in Zambia, and the Washington Consensus bill of goods that outside advisors were constantly trying to sell him. Most of the occasional articles I wrote in 2006 and 2007 about how the whole "Africa: Continent of Corruption" narrative was screwed up, and that even an honest African leader faced a set of problems wildly out of proportion to the talents of any normal politician, were on some level about Mwanawasa. As the linked obituary says, "Mwanawasa won praise from the business community and middle class Zambians as well as many Western donors and investors for his free market policies", while dollar-a-day poverty under his watch went from roughly 70% to roughly 70%.

But, in the last six months, as I noted on the blog, he really did take on a massive role in preventing Zimbabwe from falling into civil war, at precisely the time when Mbeki was failing to step up to the mark. I think that Levy Mwanawasa's death is going to leave a much bigger hole in terms of regional leadership than I'd ever previously thought possible. And now there will be an election, which I'll cover; the interest from a blog point off view is that MMD (Mwanawasa's party) is basically pro-China and the Zambian Patriotic Front is "pro-Western" (in the sense of actually promising to recognise Taiwan in the last election). The 2006 election was pretty finely balanced.
0 comments this item posted by the management 8/19/2008 08:59:00 AM
Currently reading

More Africa posts coming soon, readers, whether you want them or not, but in the meantime, I'm planning on leavening the mix with some tidbits from "Smear! Wilson and the Secret State", by Robin Ramsay and Stephen Dorrill. It's an excellent book about the various MI5 and other plots of the Wilson era, some of which also appeared in Peter Wright's "Spycatcher". Really interesting and readable stuff; unfortunately out of print but there are lots of second hand copies available on Amazon. So far, the most interesting thing I've turned up is that back in 1964, there were Labour Atlanticists then too, but back then they were all implacably opposed to the UK having an independent nuclear capability - the idea of "purely national" nuclear deterrents was regarded by the Very Sensible Indeed as dangerous, silly, French, and something very much to be avoided in favour of sheltering under the nuclear umbrella of Uncle Sam (the MLF). How things change.
6 comments this item posted by the management 8/19/2008 08:53:00 AM

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Good guys, bad guys

Out and about in the African headlines … I will be pouring out a forty for Daniel Davies aka "Scatter", who copped it in a shootout between gangsters and vigilantes near a hideout called "Baghdad" in the Red Light district of Monrovia, Liberia. Looking at the attached story, it appears that Scatter was quite the antisocial influence, in that his mates terrorised the district with petrol bombs for an afternoon in revenge. Not one for the eponym sidebar I think.

And via the PEN-L mailing list, it appears that the University of KwaZulu-Natal has been trying to close down its Centre for Civil Society. All I really know about the CCS is that it is home to Patrick Bond, but Patrick Bond is a terrific development economist and certainly a right guy to be supporting against any politically-motivated witch hunts (the CCS is a top quality and very left wing academic think tank; it's also very anti-Mugabe for the best of reasons, and Patrick himself is one of the most outspoken critics of the World Bank and IMF, all of which positions have the potential to be politically inconvenient). At present it looks like the battle to save CCS is on a knife-edge, so if any of my readers have colleagues who have influence in the development field and might not have heard of the problems at CCS, you could do a little good in the world by telling them.
14 comments this item posted by the management 8/14/2008 01:06:00 AM

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The kind of person I would like to pretend doesn't exist

Younger readers will perhaps not remember that before the invention of blogs, maniacs and weirdoes had to content themselves with writing letters to the Guardian. The tradition is still maintained, rather like those old industrial museums you sometimes see, and they are a reliable source of fodder for people who want to pretend that moronic knee-jerk anti-Americanism is a powerful force in th'land. Step forward Dr Michael Pravica, of Henderson, Nevada, with the following comment on the South Ossetia crisis:

"However, Russia's justified response to Georgia's unprovoked attack on South Ossetia is no different to Nato's barbaric attack on Serbia for seeking to recontrol areas of Kosovo imbued with Islamic terrorists."

The most charitable explanation for this is that he was too angry when he wrote it to worry about consistency.

Meanwhile, Marko Attila Hoare, in the same vein, begins with "military means are not a feasible way of reversing the Russian Anschluss with Abkhazia and South Ossetia" and ends with "We should send troops to bolster her". Which perhaps ought to give anyone serving in HM Armed Forces a reasonable idea of the esteem in which Dr Hoare holds your lives, limbs and safety - he knows that sending you to prop up Georgia's right to repress the Ossetians[1] wouldn't accomplish anything, but wants to send you anyway, in the name of "solidarity". Thank God this belligerent loon doesn't have any influence in the real world, or even (apparently) in the Henry Jackson Society.

The D^2D position on this horrible mess? I fall back on the old LBS proverb: "Not all problems have solutions". Other than to note that this sort of thing is more or less an inevitable consequence of any policy of encouraging people round the world to believe that they have a commitment of military support from NATO when they don't. Christ, we in the West are making a pig's ear out of that End Of History that we won.

[1]Perhaps not in so many words (ie, he doesn't mention the Georgian government's use of troops against civilians at all, but he must know that it happened), but one of our leading Eustonards appears to have discovered a brand new regard for the principle of territorial integrity and the right of authoritarian governments to use harsh measures to quell dissent.

Update!: it has just been burning me up not having a fucking policy on South Ossetia for the last 48 hours, and frankly that LBS proverb sounds a lot less chin-strokingly wise and a lot more knobby than I hoped it was going to. But in a flash of inspiration while eating my afternoon bun, I have come up with one! By analogy with what I regard as the most comparable recent episode of a Great Power playing silly buggers in its back yard (which we are apparently calling the "near abroad" now, to sound like international relations scholars) when the locals elected a government that it didn't like, I am analogising the current Russian raid in Georgia to the US invasion of Grenada. And therefore I recommend that our policy with respect to this ought to be to condemn it vociferously at the United Nations, fulminate long and hard in our newspapers about breathtaking Great Power arrogance, but basically do fuck all.

Here's an interesting question for your next International Relations class; the fact that I added "but basically do fuck all" to that sentence immediately rules me out of serious consideration and turns my policy suggestion into a silly, childish rant. However, the concrete military policy summarised by the phrase "basically do fuck all", is clearly the only sane one, is one that more or less every serious analyst of the situation takes as a given, and is indeed the basic bedrock for formulating any real policy response to the situation on the ground - ie, everyone knows that we are basically going to do fuck-all. Why is it that saying this out loud is so obviously verboten and what does that say about international diplomacy (other than that I would be shit at it, presumably).
3 comments this item posted by the management 8/12/2008 02:57:00 AM

Monday, August 04, 2008

The Wisdom of Indexes

I seem to remember that there was an interesting anecdote in James Surowiecki's "The Wisdom of Crowds" about the development of the threaded bolt. Unfortunately, however, the book doesn't have an index and I can't find it. Luckily, the book itself provides a solution to my problem - could all my readers please have a guess which page number I need, then I'll average them all together.


43 comments this item posted by the management 8/04/2008 02:35:00 AM

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