Monday, December 29, 2008

Leaders Lie, Civilians Die, and Lessons of History are Ignored

by Robert Fisk, the Independent UK

We've got so used to the carnage of the Middle East that we don't care any more - providing we don't offend the Israelis. It's not clear how many of the Gaza dead are civilians, but the response of the Bush administration, not to mention the pusillanimous reaction of Gordon Brown, reaffirm for Arabs what they have known for decades: however they struggle against their antagonists, the West will take Israel's side. As usual, the bloodbath was the fault of the Arabs - who, as we all know, only understand force.

Ever since 1948, we've been hearing this balderdash from the Israelis - just as Arab nationalists and then Arab Islamists have been peddling their own lies: that the Zionist "death wagon" will be overthrown, that all Jerusalem will be "liberated". And always Mr Bush Snr or Mr Clinton or Mr Bush Jnr or Mr Blair or Mr Brown have called upon both sides to exercise "restraint" - as if the Palestinians and the Israelis both have F-18s and Merkava tanks and field artillery. Hamas's home-made rockets have killed just 20 Israelis in eight years, but a day-long blitz by Israeli aircraft that kills almost 300 Palestinians is just par for the course.

The blood-splattering has its own routine. Yes, Hamas provoked Israel's anger, just as Israel provoked Hamas's anger, which was provoked by Israel, which was provoked by Hamas, which ... See what I mean? Hamas fires rockets at Israel, Israel bombs Hamas, Hamas fires more rockets and Israel bombs again and ... Got it? And we demand security for Israel - rightly - but overlook this massive and utterly disproportionate slaughter by Israel. It was Madeleine Albright who once said that Israel was "under siege" - as if Palestinian tanks were in the streets of Tel Aviv.

By last night, the exchange rate stood at 296 Palestinians dead for one dead Israeli. Back in 2006, it was 10 Lebanese dead for one Israeli dead. This weekend was the most inflationary exchange rate in a single day since - the 1973 Middle East War? The 1967 Six Day War? The 1956 Suez War? The 1948 Independence/Nakba War? It's obscene, a gruesome game - which Ehud Barak, the Israeli Defence Minister, unconsciously admitted when he spoke this weekend to Fox TV. "Our intention is to totally change the rules of the game," Barak said.

Exactly. Only the "rules" of the game don't change. This is a further slippage on the Arab-Israeli exchanges, a percentage slide more awesome than Wall Street's crashing shares, though of not much interest in the US which - let us remember - made the F-18s and the Hellfire missiles which the Bush administration pleads with Israel to use sparingly.

Quite a lot of the dead this weekend appear to have been Hamas members, but what is it supposed to solve? Is Hamas going to say: "Wow, this blitz is awesome - we'd better recognise the state of Israel, fall in line with the Palestinian Authority, lay down our weapons and pray we are taken prisoner and locked up indefinitely and support a new American 'peace process' in the Middle East!" Is that what the Israelis and the Americans and Gordon Brown think Hamas is going to do?

Yes, let's remember Hamas's cynicism, the cynicism of all armed Islamist groups. Their need for Muslim martyrs is as crucial to them as Israel's need to create them. The lesson Israel thinks it is teaching - come to heel or we will crush you - is not the lesson Hamas is learning. Hamas needs violence to emphasise the oppression of the Palestinians - and relies on Israel to provide it. A few rockets into Israel and Israel obliges.

Not a whimper from Tony Blair, the peace envoy to the Middle East who's never been to Gaza in his current incarnation. Not a bloody word.

We hear the usual Israeli line. General Yaakov Amidror, the former head of the Israeli army's "research and assessment division" announced that "no country in the world would allow its citizens to be made the target of rocket attacks without taking vigorous steps to defend them". Quite so. But when the IRA were firing mortars over the border into Northern Ireland, when their guerrillas were crossing from the Republic to attack police stations and Protestants, did Britain unleash the RAF on the Irish Republic? Did the RAF bomb churches and tankers and police stations and zap 300 civilians to teach the Irish a lesson? No, it did not. Because the world would have seen it as criminal behaviour. We didn't want to lower ourselves to the IRA's level.

Yes, Israel deserves security. But these bloodbaths will not bring it. Not since 1948 have air raids protected Israel. Israel has bombed Lebanon thousands of times since 1975 and not one has eliminated "terrorism". So what was the reaction last night? The Israelis threaten ground attacks. Hamas waits for another battle. Our Western politicians crouch in their funk holes. And somewhere to the east - in a cave? a basement? on a mountainside? - a well-known man in a turban smiles.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Get Ready for a Lost Decade

Bad times don't produce good policy.

By HOLMAN W. JENKINS, JR., The Wall Street Journal, December 24, 2008

How many times have you heard that we've learned the lessons of the Great Depression and won't repeat the same mistakes?

That statement is a bit of a false promise, since there was only one Great Depression, and many, many steps were taken and not taken, with no chance to rerun the experiment over and over to figure out what worked, or would have worked, and what didn't.

Letting hundreds of banks collapse, destroying savings and confidence, is one mistake we won't make again. But many want to insist, without evidence, that more government spending would have ended the depression. That's the direction the Obama administration is taking. Others say government did not do enough to restore business confidence, or did too much to damage it, piling on taxes, regulation and labor unions. This at least is firmer ground. Plenty of evidence from history shows that actions hostile to business tend to be related to an absence of prosperity.

But more important than these talismanic assurances about what we've learned from the Great Depression is the mistake in assuming that, even if we had a coherent view of what should be done, coherent polices would therefore be implemented.

This has little relation to how policy is made in a democracy.

Policy is always bad to a degree, but long periods of prosperity tend to be self-reinforcing since powerful interests are born with the means and motive to preserve the status quo. That status quo may really be a contributor to prosperity, such as regulatory restraint and moderate tax rates. That status quo may in some respects be ill-advised, such as excessive subsidy to housing debt.

But once prosperity blows up, the quasi-virtuous policy circle becomes an unvirtuous one as new interest groups come to the fore to exploit an appetite, previously weak, to impose their costly or vindictive wish lists. And even well-meaning policy gets twisted and rendered incoherent.

It's already happening to our banking bailout. If injecting government capital to improve confidence in banks was a good idea, it did nothing to improve the banks' own confidence in their borrowers. Yet now that banks have government capital, they're being pressed to lend to politically favored constituents regardless of their own judgment about whether the borrower is good for the money.

Or take the gathering auto bailout: Taxpayer dollars are being thrown at Detroit auto makers to make them "viable," even as Congress imposes new fuel-mileage mandates requiring them to incur tens of billions in costs unlikely to be recouped from their customers -- the definition of "nonviable."

Mr. Obama's troops palpitate with excitement at the prospect of $1 trillion in "stimulus," though any net benefit to the economy likely will be incidental. Al Gore has thrown out the window any unpopular carbon taxes in favor of direct subsidies to his green energy investments. He sees the moment for what it is -- alarm about global warming has degenerated into a pretext. Billions will be diverted from useful purposes to create "green jobs" that deliver no meaningful impact on climate or the accumulation of atmospheric carbon.

Large "confidence" costs were always destined to flow from the extreme steps being taken, even if advisable, to prop up the economy. The federal government's alternating takeovers and bailouts of companies are inherently destabilizing and create massive uncertainty in investors and businesses. The Fed's shocking steps to print money and acquire every kind of private asset and, soon perhaps, washing machines and Chevy Tahoes, may in retrospect be seen as just the right medicine. At the moment, no rational investor or business manager looks upon such doings with confidence in our economic future.

On top of it all, the Madoff scandal is peculiarly demoralizing in ways that may make its impact greater than the sum of its parts.

Our point here is that the bad policy vicious circle probably has a long way to run. While it's still possible to entertain wild hopes about an Obama administration, such hopes are partly self-liquidating on closer inspection -- they exist in the first place only because Mr. Obama has given us so little to go on, except campaign boilerplate.

Bottom line: Politics is in charge -- in a way that makes a lost decade of subpar prosperity more likely than not.

Happy Holidays.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Madoff fall-out spreads worldwide

Published: December 15 2008 19:47 |Financial Times

The fallout from Bernard Madoff’s alleged $50bn fraud spread through the global financial system on Monday as more banks revealed exposures to his firm and the beleaguered hedge fund industry braced for withdrawals from worried clients.

The potential losses reported by large financial institutions that invested or lent to investors in Mr Madoff’s failed venture reached $10bn after HSBC confirmed the news, first reported in the Financial Times, that it could lose up to $1bn.

The nationalised Dutch arm of Belgian bank Fortis admitted losses could reach €1bn ($1.4bn), while Royal Bank of Scotland joined BNP Paribas and Banco Santander among the high-profile victims of the scandal, saying it might lose up to £400m ($612m). Japan’s Nomura has Y27.5bn ($300m) at risk.

The affair has called into question the business model of funds of hedge funds – which run about $685bn in assets – after many of the biggest failed to spot warning signs. London-listed Man Group, Arki Busson’s EIM Group, and Tremont of the US have all admitted holdings in funds linked to Mr Madoff.

Funds controlled by Tremont, owned by the insurer MassMutual, had more than $3bn invested with Mr Madoff, said people close to the situation.

The investments by the hedge funds came despite the fact that some experts and Wall Street traders had raised concerns over the internal controls, business model and suspiciously consistent good performance of Mr Madoff’s business.

“This was the train wreck that happened in broad daylight,” said Jim Hedges, a hedge fund adviser who did not place any investors’ money with Bernard Madoff Investment Securities.

Hedge fund managers said they expected withdrawals as clients and funds of funds rushed to raise money to cover losses from the alleged “Ponzi scheme” – in which investors’ pay-outs are funded not with real returns but with cash from new investors.

The Securities Investor Protection Corp, an insurance body funded by the securities industry, said it had begun liquidating Bernard Madoff Investment Securities.

But as federal investigators and the court-appointed receiver sifted through the New York headquarters of the firm, the list of victims continued to grow.

Banque Benedict Hentsch, a Swiss private bank, on Monday terminated its three-month-old agreement to merge with Fairfield Greenwich, a hedge fund, after Fairfield revealed more than half its $14bn under management was held by Mr Madoff.

Reporting by Francesco Guerrera, Henny Sender, Deborah Brewster, Nicole Bullock and Saskia Scholtes in New York, and James Mackintosh in London

Monday, December 15, 2008

Tight State Budgets Are Top Concern for Higher-Education Lobbyists


Monday, December 15, 2008

San Diego

Some 170 lobbyists for public colleges and universities met here last week to prepare for upcoming state legislative sessions and to discuss how to protect their institutions from severe budget cuts in a nationwide economic crisis.

The Higher Education Government Relations Conference, "Making the Case," featured several sessions on how to frame higher education's economic-development mission favorably for the public as well as state lawmakers.

At least a dozen states have already made midyear cuts to higher education. And the economy affected attendance at the annual conference as well: 18 states were not represented at all at this year's meeting largely because of travel restrictions at many public higher-education institutions.

The three-day conference is a joint effort of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, the American Association of Community Colleges, the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, and the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges.

Doing More With Less in Ohio

Eric D. Fingerhut, chancellor of Ohio's Board of Regents, had tough advice for higher-education lobbyists at the conference.

Mr. Fingerhut drew a lesson from the lives of the Wright brothers, the bicycle-shop owners from Ohio who are generally credited with building the first successful airplane. The chancellor pointed out that they created their flying machine without government grants, a subsidized research laboratory, or even college degrees.

“I think about them a lot of when we talk about our scarce resources and lack of needed funds because I know that didn’t stop two bicycle mechanics from Dayton, Ohio, who revolutionized the world," Mr. Fingerhut said. "And I know it’s not going to stop us today.”

Lawmakers, who must listen to scores of appeals for money every year, are less inclined to support higher education if the only message is that the institutions will fail if they don't get adequate state support, he said. Instead, he said, college and university advocates need to show how they can succeed even in difficult times.

Mr. Fingerhut, the former ranking Democrat on the Ohio Senate's finance committee, has been a driving force behind an effort to overhaul his state’s higher-education system to bolster colleges' roles as economic engines for Ohio. The state is struggling financially, not only from the current nationwide economic crisis but also from the long-term decline of its manufacturing industry.

Ohio’s plan moved the state's 14 universities, 24 regional campuses, and 23 community colleges into a single system and will require institutions to meet some 20 benchmarks to streamline operations, improve graduation rates, and keep more alumni in the state.

Mr. Fingerhut said higher-education institutions across the nation need to do more to demonstrate their worth even as they face cuts. At least 40 states have shortfalls in their budgets.

"If we can only perform as an economic engine when the economy is good, they don’t need us,” Mr. Fingerhut said.

California's Economic Dilemma

The leaders of California's three public higher-education systems detailed for lobbyists the effects of budget cuts on their institutions. They said the cuts will force them to turn away tens of thousands of students from their college classrooms, and they called on state and federal lawmakers to help them through the economic crisis.

The Golden State is facing an estimated budget shortfall of $28-billion through the 2010 fiscal year, and it has already cut hundreds of millions of dollars from higher education in the previous and current fiscal years.

Lawmakers trying to patch the fiscal hole should limit reductions for higher education and other state programs by passing a package of both spending cuts and tax increases, even though doing so could be politically unpopular, said State Sen. Jack Scott, a Democrat, who must leave office because of term limits and will become chancellor of the state’s community-college system in January. He said that an estimated 260,000 students will not be able to enroll in courses at the state's community colleges, which will not have adequate funds to hire enough faculty members to meet those students' needs.

The majority of California's Democratic legislators and the governor have agreed to a package like the one Sen. Scott described, he said, but the idea has been blocked by Republicans who oppose any tax hikes.

Charles B. Reed, chancellor of California State University, said the state’s fiscal situation is “sick” and won’t get better until state lawmakers swallow their medicine and increase revenue (The Chronicle, November 18). Mr. Reed, who has announced that his system would cut next fall’s enrollment by 10,000 students, warned that the impact of that measure would fall hardest on students from low-income families and those from underserved minority groups. As those groups become the majority of the state's population, they need to be better educated to sustain the state's economy, he said.

Mark G. Yudof, president of the University of California system, said it was time for students, faculty members, and administrators to “go over the heads of legislators” and do more to clearly explain to members of the public that “if we don’t do well, they won’t do well.”

Mr. Yudof also said that he and the other higher-education leaders nationally are looking for help from the federal government. They have drafted an economic-stimulus plan for higher education that they will pitch to Congressional leaders and President-elect Barack Obama.

Fights on File-Sharing Legislation

The recording, movie, and computer-software industries are likely to once again next year press state lawmakers for laws that would require colleges to help monitor and punish illegal file-sharing by students on their campuses, said a panel of speakers at the conference (The Chronicle, May 9).

Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, signed a bill earlier this year that will require the state's public and private colleges to try to prevent illegal file sharing. The measure comes with an estimated cost of nearly $10-million for the first year and continuing costs of $1.5-million annually.

A similar measure failed in Illinois this year, and another is being debated in Texas. The measures require colleges to install software filters on campus networks to prevent people from downloading songs and movies from file-sharing Web sites without paying for them, said Steven L. Worona, director of policy and networking programs at Educause, a higher-education technology group.

Colleges don’t condone such file-sharing behavior, but the prevention measures are too expensive, are easily circumvented, and will simply push students to do the same thing off campus, Mr. Worona said.

Brian E. Roberts, vice president for information technology at the University of Texas at Austin, said the state bills are "the death throes of [the recording industry's] failed business model." He and Mr. Worona said there was no doubt that new measures would be introduced during the coming legislative sessions, especially in states like California and Florida, where the entertainment industry has a strong presence.

Mr. Roberts argued that lobbyists for the entertainment industry often exaggerate the amount of illegal downloading that happens on campuses. One of the biggest obstacles to reining in illegal downloading, he said, is that the method entertainment companies use to identify file sharing only searches for content that has been uploaded to a folder where others may have access to it. It does not distinguish whether those files are illegally downloaded, he explained. Because of that, colleges and students could be unfairly identified even if no actual illegal downloading occurred, Mr. Roberts said.

Copyright © 2008 by The Chronicle of Higher Education