Politics

Yesterday…

I heard a Shadow Minister casually drop the word ‘mashup’ into the conversation. That can only be a good sign of the things to come.

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Euphoria and next steps

Never before has one man (and his entourage) created such a boost in confidence from one day to another. I work quite a bit with Americans (in America) at the moment and the otherwise relatively ‘cold’ business conversations have turned into highly personal exclamations about the present and the future. I find it fascinating to receive emails like the ones below from people I hardly know.

From the Bay Area:

I can’t even explain to you the joy happening here! This man has created a whole new experience of America. He joined so many people together in these months. Everyone was working for Obama. The amount of community organization was beyond all expectations. It became such a bonding factor. People were out in the streets celebrating till the A.M. hours in Oakland, Berkeley and San Francisco. Even when I went to bed in the early hours of 11/5/04, I could here the music and gaiety.

I can proudly say, for the first time in so many years, that I am an American. I feel no shame, guilt or other. I am finally proud to be an American. Wow!!!

From NYC:

We are estatic, elated, thrilled, stunned and relieved! We believe that there is a huge mess to clean up but we are up for the challenge. Hoping Gore will be appointed to the EPA.

What is the reaction in London? I’m hearing everyone around the world feels as we do.

In terms of the next steps, Wired ran a feature a while back, asking various experts about their advice to the incoming president: The 2008 Smart List: 15 People The Next President Should Listen To.

My institute director (and examiner), Steve Rayner, suggests that Obama should take climate change seriously and consider it a driver of innovation:

The outgoing administration failed to come to grips with climate change out of fear that reducing greenhouse gas emissions would damage the economy. But the decision to deal with climate change doesn’t lend itself to cost-benefit analysis. It is a strategic choice, like the decision to get married. You have an opportunity to define the nation’s character and upgrade its infrastructure — and bold action would be consistent with America’s historical role as a leader in innovation.

Climate change aside, restoring America as a leading country is indeed a daunting task.

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This just in

Now official; Russia backs Palin.

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Quote(s) of the day

Globalization creates interlocking fragility, while reducing volatility and giving the appearance of stability. In other words it creates devastating Black Swans. We have never lived before under the threat of a global collapse. Financial Institutions have been merging into a smaller number of very large banks. Almost all banks are interrelated. So the financial ecology is swelling into gigantic, incestuous, bureaucratic banks – when one fails, they all fall. The increased concentration among banks seems to have the effect of making financial crises less likely, but when they happen they are more global in scale and hit us very hard. We have moved from a diversified ecology of small banks, with varied lending policies, to a more homogeneous framework of firms that all resemble one another. True, we now have fewer failures, but when they occur ….I shiver at the thought.

Banks hire dull people and train them to be even more dull. If they look conservative, it’s only because their loans go bust on rare, very rare occasions. But (…)bankers are not conservative at all. They are just phenomenally skilled at self-deception by burying the possibility of a large, devastating loss under the rug.

The government-sponsored institution Fannie Mae, when I look at its risks, seems to be sitting on a barrel of dynamite, vulnerable to the slightest hiccup. But not to worry: their large staff of scientists deemed these events “unlikely”.

There is no way to gauge the effectiveness of their lending activity by observing it over a day, a week, a month, or . . . even a century!

(…) the real- estate collapse of the early 1990s in which the now defunct savings and loan industry required a taxpayer-funded bailout of more than half a trillion dollars. The Federal Reserve bank protected them at our expense: when “conservative” bankers make profits, they get the benefits; when they are hurt, we pay the costs.

Once again, recall the story of banks hiding explosive risks in their portfolios. It is not a good idea to trust corporations with matters such as rare events because the performance of these executives is not observable on a short-term basis, and they will game the system by showing good performance so they can get their yearly bonus. The Achilles’ heel of capitalism is that if you make corporations compete, it is sometimes the one that is most exposed to the negative Black Swan that will appear to be the most fit for survival.

As if we did not have enough problems, banks are now more vulnerable to the Black Swan and the ludic fallacy than ever before with “scientists” among their staff taking care of exposures. The giant firm J. P. Morgan put the entire world at risk by introducing in the nineties RiskMetrics, a phony method aiming at managing people’s risks, causing the generalized use of the ludic fallacy, and bringing Dr. Johns into power in place of the skeptical Fat Tonys. (A related method called “Value-at-Risk,” which relies on the quantitative measurement of risk, has been spreading.)

Scissored from Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s: The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (April 2007).

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Thought of the day

Would it be possible to donate Saudi Arabia to a galaxy far, far away?

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On self-fulfilling prophecies

The whole fuss about Geert Wilders’ propaganda movie illustrates critically the century-old but eternally relevant question about the extent to which the media create their own stories rather than merely describing events as they happen.

The movie itself is nothing but a mishmash of ‘deadly’ quotes from the Qur’an, explicit post-terror footage, juicy newspaper headlines, and the sort of ‘statistics’ that appeals so broadly, yet describes nothing. Any teenager with a laptop could pull together a ‘movie’ like this, post it on YouTube, and no-one would ever raise an eyebrow.

But thanks to the media, always hungry for a good scandal, this pathetic piece of ‘documentary’ is all of a sudden standing smack in the middle of a ‘clash between civilizations,’ ramifying into the upper echelons of political life and probably hitting a street near you pretty soon. The prophecy is slowly fulfilling itself.

Some things are best ignored.

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Something’s rotten in the state of Russia

During my once in a lifetime excursion into the Russian North, I was given a first hand impression of just how hospitable and friendly people can be.

Quite a few of the hosts were educated at the European University at St Petersburg (EUSP), which enabled us to talk together without using interpreters. They were all highly articulate and, judging from their papers, not least brilliant social scientific scholars. Traditionally, and this is rare for higher education institutions in Russia, the EUSP has enjoyed strong links with European and US universities.

Recently, I have been informed that for very obscure reasons – citing “fire safety violations” as a pretext – the university has effectively been closed down by the Russian authorities. Other sources (1, 2, 3, 4) have suggested that the decision is politically motivated.

For advice on how to have your say on these matters, please check out this blog: Save the European University at St Petersburg.

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The state of environmental leadership

How mind-blowingly stupid would it be for a Scandinavian prime minister to call for a press briefing on governmental efforts to reduce carbon emmissions and then put bottled French water on the table?

I hope this picture is taken from the archives, whilst, on the other hand, that would perhaps prove the greenwashing point even further…

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JP and the cartoon affair

My friend and distinguished scholar, Wilfrid Knapp, has kindly allowed me to publish his comments on the cartoon affair. With a long career in the field of politics and in-depth knowledge of Danish culture, I believe his answer to my question holds great credibility:

What do I think about the spat over the Danish cartoons? As a political analyst (never a political scientist) I perhaps have little to add to all that has been published in the print media. However: I well remember that in my last days working with Oxford Analytica I was preoccupied, as was our editor, with anger in the Arab world. At that time (say ten years ago) we spoke and wrote about the anger of Arab people, and to some extent governments, directed against ‘the West’ and, more than that, just anger, more explosive because it had no direction or target. The anger came from a deeply held feeling that the world is against Arabs and against Islam. At that time our audiences were fairly deaf to what we were trying to tell them – audiences that wanted to hear from specialists but then would readily dismiss what they heard as being exaggerated. Since then the anger has increased as a result of political events and frustration. Political events – ‘the West’ intervenes in the Balkans to protect Christians, was very slow to to anything to help Muslims in Bosnia, keeps quiet about Russian action in Chechnyia, which is Muslim, supports Israel in all its oppression of Palestinians. Frustration – as Arabs we have a great past, we have oil wealth, but we have no economic growth and no power. So we lash out – we burn flags and buildings and we boycott Danish goods. We have solidarity together and we have support across the Muslim world. Fortunately our neighbours the Iranians do have the possibility of power – they can build a nuclear weapon, although of course the West will try to stop them; the West will talk about sanctions but they depend on us for our oil and anyway sanctions will not work.

On the other side I assume that the cartoonists and the Jylands Posten had little idea of the significance of what they were doing. No doubt they are too young to remember when there were laws against blasphemy – at least there was such a law in Britain – and, being irreligious, they have little empathy with those who react as the Arabs are doing. In their defence some of our media have drawn attention to the satire in our society of Christian religion. This does not help: the Koran gives Muslims a reverence for Jesus, though not as the son of God, and they see the disrespect of religion in our society as another example of its decadence. And then there are the media. First of all that a Danish newspaper can be seen everywhere in the world and then that the semi-violence of the protesters is picked up by the media, who have no interest in showing quiet devout Muslims attending their mosques (though they may listen to inflammatory sermons) So the rioters see themselves and feel better and go on doing more. I have said many times that if a little bit of liberalism and democracy is spreading in the Middle East it is not because of Bush but because of the technology – satellite broadcasting, the internet and e-mail – but the same technology works well for extremists and rioters. And Muslims have noticed that there is in our society a fairly strong taboo against anti-Semitism while the denigration of Islam is fair game.

If then you ask me for my opinion (as an analyst, unlike the Economist, I do not have opinions) I naturally deplore the unrestrained exercise of free opinion – naturally because I have my feet in an earlier period) Especially I deplore the aggressive assertion of free expression. Firstly I hold a pragmatic view that the right of free expression, like rights in general, implies a duty – a duty to exercise the right responsibly. Such a view of course provokes long discussion, which I have not time for now. Secondly the unrestrained commitment to free expression is rarely disinterested and more often is manipulative. And thirdly, since we all have some desire for privacy, it is often accompanied by hypocrisy (though hypocrisy is not the worst vice in our society).

In short I think the cartoons have done a great deal of harm for no gain. Free expression is under no threat in Denmark and does not need an agressive assertion to demonstrate that it exists. The cartoonists and their editors are obviously deeply ignorant of Arab and Muslim society and have no sympathy with those of their fellow-citizens who deplore insults to the deity and to Christian religion. Which most of the time does not matter, but in this instance it does.

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What a sad day…

From Arab News:

The Danish imam [Faith Alev] said that Muslims there have expressed their dissatisfaction by participating in the Danish media and holding public debates.

Muslims who make up three percent of the Danish population of 5.2 million, are now better heard and known than before, he said.

“Now, every one knows for sure that there is no unlimited freedom of expression,” he said.

Abdul Wahid Pedersen, vice chairman of the Islamic Christian Study Center, said that Muslims did not face any discrimination from the Danish government or its people during this controversy.

“Denmark appreciates the freedom of religion,�? he said, adding that in rare cases from time to time they encounter some criticism by individuals and hear some rude talks about Islam.

There were no boycott reactions by Muslims in Denmark, because most of the market’s product is made locally.

“Though we could not have an actual reaction, we appreciate the steps taken by our brother Muslims all over the world,�? he said.”

From a linguistic-political perspective this is a series of immensely interesting utterances. From my perspective it is just about the most hypocritical statement I have ever laid my eyes upon.

Please explain to me how, on the one hand, one is pleased about having accomplished limitations on freedom of speech and, on the other, one claims to be against discrimination?

I wonder what “steps” and “an actual reaction” refer to here. What is my fellow Dane talking about: would it be the death threats, the bombscares, the protest marches, the flag-burnings, the diplomatic rows, the condemnations and demands for apologies from the world’s Islamic and Arab bodies, the calls for a U.N. resolution carrying a sanctions threat, the fatwa issued against Danish troops in Iraq, the widening Mideast boycott of Danish goods, or would it be the UK-based Jihadists now declaring holy war against Denmark

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