Wednesday, 23 April 2008

The Gilded Age (Part Deux)

From TomDispatch:
"Think of it as gilding the pain. Last year, hedge fund manager John Paulson of Paulson & Co. hauled in a nifty $3.7 billion. (Yes, you read that right.) Mainly, he did so, according to the Wall Street Journal, "by shorting, or betting against, subprime mortgage securities and collateralized debt obligations." And he wasn't alone. Hedge fund money-maker Philip Falcone of Harbinger Capital Partners raked in a comparatively measly $1.7 billion in 2007, also by shorting subprime mortgages. These are fortunes beyond imagining, made in no time at all by betting on the pure misery of others. Think of them as Las Vegas with a mean streak a mile wide.

In a week in which Citibank released news of quarterly losses of $5.1 billion and sweeping job cuts, food riots dotted the planet, oil hit $117 a barrel, and regular gas prices averaged $3.47 a gallon at the pump (with another 30 cents likely to be tacked on in the next month), Institutional Investor's Alpha magazine released its list of the 50 top hedge fund managers. In 2007, they "made" a cumulative $29 billion. (Even to slip in among the top 25, you had to take in at least $360 million.) To put this in perspective, Paulson alone made $1.6 billion dollars more than it is going to cost J.P. Morgan Chase to pick up the tanking Bear Stearns; in one hour, he made 30 times what the median American family earned all last year. And here's a little tidbit to go with that: Income inequality in 2007 was, according to the Associated Press, "at the highest level since 1928, the year before the Great Depression began."

Well, huh.

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Food Crises, Agribusiness and Famines

There's an interesting post over at Lenin's Tomb connected to my recent posts on global food prices. Lenin throws in some interesting historical analysis as well and asks the very pertinent question: "Why is it that for the first time the number of obese people (1 billion) exceeds the number of starving people (850 million)?"

But don't just stop at reading the post, I also strongly recommend reading the comments. Of particular interest are several running debates amongst the impressively informed readers, that include the question of whether Mao's agricultural policies saw an improvement in the lives of the bulk of the peasantry, the massive famine associated with the Great Leap Forward notwithstanding, and (more my own area of interest and expertise) to what extent the massive famines of the last 19th century in colonial India were the direct result of British policy. [I strongly recommend the book that is referenced, Mike Davis' Late Victorian Holocausts]

Another article well worth reading is this one in the Telegraph. It argues that rising demand in Asia for meat has less to do with the dramatic increase in prices than the switch to biofuel and speculation on the commodity trading markets [incidentally it is also commodity traders that are artificially raising the price of oil higher as well], citing the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization. There certainly is an element of capitalism gone mad when we find that rain forest is being slashed and burned in Brazil to clear land to grow grain for "environmentally friendly" biofuel.


Blaming 'Feudalism' has become the lazy way of expressing 'concern' about Pakistan. It has become a catch-all phrase to describe and explain any kind of troubling social phenomena in the country. But what is this creature called feudalism anyway? Akbar Zaidi has an excellent article in Dawn arguing that the term is out of date and obscures far more than it helps to understand the social, economic and political realities of Pakistan.

Yet More Updates

Some interesting articles that serve to follow up on some of my previous posts:

The United States says it will release $200 million in emergency aid to alleviate food shortages in Africa and other parts of the world. While I hope this is a useful step, the cynic (realist?) in me wonders if this may not be another disaster in the making like the one where food aid arrived in a drought-stricken country a year late, and only served to bankrupt local farmers.

The Ghosts of Alexander blog has an interesting post called The Afghan Individual as a Unit of Analysis, which takes to task the intellectually lazy tendency amongst journalists and academics to "talks of groups in Afghanistan as if they were a coherent unit with a single will".

On a similar note, the folks over at the Kings of War blog, take aim at silly statements like this:

"Muslim countries are not like other countries. In as much as occupying troops are a much bigger theological, psychological problem for Arab countries than somewhere like Japan and Germany. And if you don't understand that about Islam, then you really aren't judging and you really haven't learned from the last four or five years."

Quite apart from the lazy, interchangable use of Muslim and Arab, one wonders if what the reporter in question is trying to suggest is that other racial/religious (same thing, no?) groups have much less of a problem being occupied by foreign troops than Arab/Muslims (same thing, no?)

The money quote from the blog: "Whenever I hear talk that smacks of cultural determinism, I reach for my revolver!"

I had also previously written about Obama's attempts to improve his image in Israel. The Rootless Cosmopolitan has an excellent article entitled "Obama and the Jewish Vote".

Barnett Rubin at 'Informed Comment: Global Affairs' provides the text to the policy speech of the ANP's Amir Haider Khan Hoti, the new Chief Minister of NWFP. Its worth reading, and as a policy statement, seems to me to be nuanced and sounding all the right notes. Lets hope the NWFP government has the ability and wherewithal to implement it.

Finally, I leave you with this excellent guest post by Alastair Cooke at the Rootless Cosmopolitan blog about Iraq and the U.S. faith in violence:
Although there are different ideas about how and when to use it, there is, I think, a consensus in Washington on the idea that by applying its overwhelming advantage in military force, the U.S. can do good in the world. It can make the world a better place through the transformative impact of violence, in the way that the violence of the hero in a Hollywood movie “cleanses” the world of incorrigible evil.

Sunday, 13 April 2008

More on the Global Food Crisis

Helena Cobban at 'Just World News' (which is an excellent source for analysis on current affairs), has an interesting post about the global food crisis, with some excellent links in it. Particularly noteworthy is the World Bank report that public order is at risk in 33 countries because of rising food prices.

Ms. Cobban also expresses the opinion that the global food crisis is going to bring about the end of 'America's unipolar moment'. She doesn't elaborate on why she feels this is so. To me, the idea seems counter-intuitive, since the United States is (a) a net exporter of grains and (b) sharply rising demand in the U.S. is driven by the switch to bio-fuel. So, to me at least, it seems as if the food crisis wouldn't cause serious harm to America's global standing and in fact, will probably strengthen it.

One of Ms. Cobban's ideas for a remedy is switching to a less meat-oriented diet. The background to this is that one of the reasons for the rise in food prices is the demand for meat by the growing middle classes in developing countries, particularly China and India. A rise in demand for beef burgers means a much larger rise in demand for grain since grains are used in feed for cows. Cows also take up much more agricultural land.

Now as this old article in the Guardian points out:
The basic rule of thumb is that it takes 2kg of feed to produce every kilogram of chicken, 4kg for pork, and at least 7kg for beef. The more meat we eat, the more grain, soya and other feedstuffs we need. So when we hear that the total global meat demand is expected to grow from 209m tonnes in 1997 to around 327m tonnes in 2020, what we have to hold in our mind is all the extra hectares of land required, all the extra water consumed, the extra energy burned, and the extra chemicals applied to grow the requisite amount of feed to produce 327m tonnes of meat.

So even if vegetarianism is not your thing, eating less beef and more chicken would still make a positive difference (and white meat is much healthier anyway). Still not convinced? Why not browse through this report on 'The Global Benefits of Eating Less Meat', especially the graph comparing land use efficiency at the bottom of page 23. Beef has the lowest efficiency with 20 pounds of usable protein per acre, rice has 261 pounds of usable protein per acre and soybeans has the highest efficiency with 356 pounds per acre.

So roughly speaking, in the same amount of agricultural land it takes to feed 1 person with beef, you can grow enough rice to feed 13 people.

Friday, 11 April 2008

Storm in a Teacup (Again!)

The ability of the U.S. media to create storms in teacups is something truly to be admired. When its not Obama dressing up in a turban and traditional Kenyan dress, its the "revelation" that McCain went to topless bars when he was a younger...

Latest storm? Obama never mentioned in his biographies that he spent several weeks in Pakistan back in 1981. Add this to his Pakistani roomate at college and illegal immigrant Pakistani friend, and *gasp!* this all begins to smell of conspiracy!

In other news, Obama has launched a blog in hebrew in an attempt to reach out to the Israeli public, which, according to polls, feels his pro-Israeli crededentials are not as sound as the other two presidential candidates.

Someone asked me the other day if Benazir Bhutto could truly be considered a politician [I believe his point was that she was more a feudal princess than a modern politician]. I replied that I thought that she had been a very talented politician, and that the more pertinent question was, what was her political constituency? Its widely felt in Pakistani politics, that to be succesful, one has to be acceptable not only to the Pakistani people, but also to the American government. The American government, in other words, is an extra-national constituency of any leading Pakistani politician. In the same way, there seems to be the feeling in Washington, that the Israeli public is a key extra-national constituency for any American Presidential candidate.

Edit: So apparently I'm late with the 'breaking news' about Obama's Pakistan connection. Ali Khan blogs about it on the Dawn blog here.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Bits and Bobs

The recent fighting in Basra in Iraq has been dominating the international news. While Fox bemoans the 'defeatist' coverage of 'liberal' media, and CNN and BBC have reporting thats only marginally better, here is an interesting article about Muqtada al-Sadr. Its a chapter from an upcoming book by the Independent's reporter, Patrick Cockburn and makes for interesting reading.

On a different note, Slate has a good explainer on why global food prices are soaring. They also link to a chart showing the global food price index on the UN Food and Agriculture Organization's website.

In light of food inflation and recessionary fears in the United States, the IMF had reduced its forecast of global economic growth last month and is now warning that the developing world should brace itself to suffer a knock on effect.

Ah, good news for the future, then.

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

UAE forces in Afghanistan

It comes as a surprise to me, but if it will help with the reconstruction of the country then its for the best. Apparently, UAE forces have been operating in Afghanistan for several years now, which is unusual for an Islamic country.

Another interesting article is this one about the Taliban's relationship with mobile phone operators in Afghanistan by Barnett Rubin.