Thursday, October 30, 2008

Why vote... in NC anyway.


Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Sales of Guns and Fortress Mentality.

Some people lose a lot with the conomic crisis, but others are big winners: there has been a boom (8 to 10%) in the business of gun sales lately. Why? Fear of the economy.
Apparently, some Americans are afraid of "more crimes and civil disorder should the American economy turn for the worse as more people lose their jobs and homes, while prices continue to soar and credit card bills pile up". So what's their response: buy a gun.
It also seeems that others may be afraid of "tougher gun control measures if Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama is elected." (ANH)

I guess we should expect more shootings like this in the near future.
I guess some people would do anything.... There promises to be fun times ahead... ! Gulp!


Obama, a Marxist?

An interview Sen. Joe Biden did with Florida television anchor Barbara West made the headlines Sunday, after she asked if Sen. Barack Obama's now famous conversation with 'Joe the plumber' about 'spreading the wealth' made him a Marxist.
I kid you not.
How is Barack Obama not being a Marxist if he intends to
spread the wealth around?

Biden asked, "Are you joking?"

In case you missed it, you'd better see it to believe it :

Someone should tell this lady that all taxation redistributes income. Obama was talking about progressive taxation - the idea that people who make more should pay more - NOT class warfare or exploitation of workers.

More interestingly, as Time reminds us:
Between 2000 and 2004 McCain also had concerns about the distribution of wealth in America. More specifically, he opposed the Bush Tax cuts because a "disproportional amount went to the wealthiest Americans." (see video here)
NBC's Tom Brokaw asked McCain about this on Sunday, during a Meet The Press sit down. McCain's answer is a bit difficult to parse. He seems to suggest that some progressivity is good in the tax code, but that progressivity should be minimized (or at least not increased) during difficult economic times.
To finish on this supposedly "Marxist" issue, who said :
And all that believed were together, and had all things common;
And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need.

Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold,
And laid them down at the apostles' feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.
Marx? Lenin? Mao?
Nope - just Luke in the NT (respectively Acts 2:44-45 & Acts 4:34-35) when he described the organization of the first Christian congregations after the death of Jesus.
Granted this may be a bit too radical in this day and age, but clearly a little redistribution may be more in tune with a Christian social mode.


Saturday, October 25, 2008

Income Distribution and Poverty in OECD Countries

In case you missed the latest OECD report this week, here are some very interesting data :

The conclusion is that "the gap between rich and poor has grown in more than three-quarters of OECD countries over the past two decades" but there striking differences, notably between the U.S. and France - differences that would surprise the French as much as the American people:

The United States is the country with the highest inequality level and poverty rate across the OECD, Mexico and Turkey excepted. Since 2000, income inequality has increased rapidly, continuing a long-term trend that goes back to the 1970s.

The average income of the richest 10% is US$93,000 US$ in purchasing power parities, the highest level in the OECD. However, the poorest 10% of the US citizens have an income of US$5,800 US$ per year – about 20% lower than the average for OECD countries.


France is one of only five OECD countries where income inequality and poverty have declined over the past 20 years.
Inequality and poverty (meaning people who live on less than half median incomes) are below OECD average, though without reaching the very low levels of the Nordic countries.
The richest 10% of the French population has an income of US$ 54,000 per year, in purchasing power parities – about the same as the OECD average. Similarly, the middle class have an income level (US$ 20,000) similar to the OECD average. However, the poorest 10% of the French population have an income of almost US$ 9,000 per year – about 25% higher than the average for OECD countries.

(Just as a reminder, The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) (in French: Organisation de coopération et de développement économiques, OCDE) is an international organisation of thirty countries that accept the principles of representative democracy and free-market economy.)


Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Right Answer Given by Colin Powell.

What was most important about former Secretary of State Colin Powell's endorsement of Obama on Meet the Press was not the actual endorsement, I thought but rather this great comment on the recent developments in the campaign :
"I'm also troubled by, not what Senator McCain says, but what members of the [Republican] Party say... such things as 'Well, you know that Mr Obama is a Muslim'.
"Well the correct answer is, 'He's not a Muslim, he's a Christian, he's always been a Christian'.

But the really right answer is, "What if he is?' Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer is 'No', that's not America."

Exactly what McCain should have said last week.... :

I was surprised that no one else seemed to notice. What a relief that finally somebody said something. It was about time!


Why (moderate) Republicans Should Vote Obama.

I usually don't find the topic of newspaper endorsement particularly relevant - it is not necessarily very surprising that the Obama-Biden ticket should have a lead in the race for newspaper endorsements.
Besides, it is not because newspapers support so and so, that their readers cannot make up their own mind and vote different.

But this time something else is happening: a major CONSERVATIVE newspaper (The Chicago Tribune) decides to endorse a democratic candidate - this for the first time since its creation in 1847.

Of course, one might think this has partly to do with the fact that Senator Obama is from Illinois but as you read the editorial, you begin to understand there is much more to it.

In fact, they have laid some of the reasons why some moderate Republicans might (and certainly should vote for Obama) :

1) The disillusion of 8 years of Republican leadership.

The Republican Party, the party of limited government, has lost its way. The government ran a $237 billion surplus in 2000, the year before Bush took office—and recorded a $455 billion deficit in 2008. The Republicans lost control of the U.S. House and Senate in 2006 because, as we said at the time, they gave the nation rampant spending and Capitol Hill corruption. They abandoned their principles. They paid the price.

2) McCain's lack of coherence and his populism

We might have counted on John McCain to correct his party's course. We like McCain. We endorsed him in the Republican primary in Illinois. In part because of his persuasion and resolve, the U.S. stands to win an unconditional victory in Iraq.
It is, though, hard to figure John McCain these days. He argued that President Bush's tax cuts were fiscally irresponsible, but he now supports them. He promises a balanced budget by the end of his first term, but his tax cut plan would add an estimated $4.2 trillion in debt over 10 years. He has responded to the economic crisis with an angry, populist message and a misguided, $300 billion proposal to buy up bad mortgages.
3) McCain's choice as a running mate vs. Obama's - the so-called "Palin effect"
McCain failed in his most important executive decision. Give him credit for choosing a female running mate—but he passed up any number of supremely qualified Republican women who could have served. Having called Obama not ready to lead, McCain chose Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. His campaign has tried to stage-manage Palin's exposure to the public. But it's clear she is not prepared to step in at a moment's notice and serve as president. McCain put his campaign before his country.

Obama chose a more experienced and more thoughtful running mate—he put governing before politicking. Sen. Joe Biden doesn't bring many votes to Obama, but he would help him from Day One to lead the country.
4) Healing the nation.
Yet, their endorsement is not bitter and simply negative - they support Obama because of what he has said and done and not just out of disappointment with McCain. They see in Obama a "unifier" (and not just a "decider"), someone who can heal the country and work in the center - just what this country needs after 8 years of a growing divide.
We do, though, think Obama would govern as much more of a pragmatic centrist than many people expect.We know firsthand that Obama seeks out and listens carefully and respectfully to people who disagree with him. He builds consensus. He was most effective in the Illinois legislature when he worked with Republicans on welfare, ethics and criminal justice reform.

He worked to expand the number of charter schools in Illinois—not popular with some Democratic constituencies.
He took up ethics reform in the U.S. Senate—not popular with Washington politicians.
His economic policy team is peppered with advisers who support free trade. He has been called a "University of Chicago Democrat"—a reference to the famed free-market Chicago school of economics, which puts faith in markets.

Obama is deeply grounded in the best aspirations of this country, and we need to return to those aspirations. He has had the character and the will to achieve great things despite the obstacles that he faced as an unprivileged black man in the U.S.
He has risen with his honor, grace and civility intact. He has the intelligence to understand the grave economic and national security risks that face us, to listen to good advice and make careful decisions.
When Obama said at the 2004 Democratic Convention that we weren't a nation of red states and blue states, he spoke of union the way Abraham Lincoln did.
It may have seemed audacious for Obama to start his campaign in Springfield,invoking Lincoln. We think, given the opportunity to hold this nation's most powerful office, he will prove it wasn't so audacious after all.
We are proud to add Barack Obama's name to Lincoln's in the list of people the Tribune has endorsed for president of the United States.

And one more thing - the decision did not seem to have been so hard to take:

There was a 90-minute discussion of the editorial board.There were passionate, but respectful arguments on both sides. Everyone spoke. There was no shouting. What emerged was a clear consensus of the board in favor of Obama. (Chic Tribune)



$ Making a Quick Buck in Hard Times... $


The Thrifty vs. the Spendthrift.

Two nights ago, NBC Evening News showed yet another of their reports on "Hard Times".
What was interesting and different this time was one couple of retirees who was "calmly riding out the storm". The reason?
They have always lived by an "old-fashion" idea of "not buying if you didn't have the money, and saving up til you got it". Wow! What a concept! It was refreshing but it had been ages since I saw something like that on American television.
A sign of changing times?


Saturday, October 18, 2008

A Forgotten Anniversary : the Credit Card.

This year is the 50th anniversary of the Credit Card. Not much pomp and fanfare there. Had Brian Williams not mentioned it last night, I wouldn't have known.
Since fifty years ago this month, Americans have had a love affair with plastic but it's an affair that often ends badly (Brian Williams, NBC News)

In 1958, American Express created a worldwide credit card network. That same year, Bank of America created the BankAmericard in 1958, a product which, with its overseas affiliates, eventually evolved into the Visa system. (Wikipedia)
Yet, in this time of credit crunch, bad mortgages, and foreclosures, this may be a good time to reflect on this love affair with plastic.

Here are some telling figures :
By looking at these figures (provided by the Federal Reserve), one can certainly assume that the system has gone out of hands. Thanks to mass mailing playing on greed, millions of people live beyond their means.
When people start using credit cards to pay other credit cards, or when they depend on their credit for food you can only agree there is something wrong with the system.
In fact, some people
The average US household carries an average of $ 8,300 worth of credit debt.(NBC News)

Despite that:
82 % of Americans feel credit cards are essential today, with the same percentage saying credit cards provide a valuable service.
Of course, without a credit card in the U.S. there are many things that will be off limits - even going to any kind of emergency will probably require a credit card as a backup!
It seems to me that the current credit crunch and economic crisis may change this. In fact, the credit card system as it is not needs regulating. In any case, it is not a necessary evil :
In France, real "credit cards" as you can find in the UK or the US are actually unusual. Yet people buy stuff too and have embraced free-market economy (albeit with a few more regulations).
The closest equivalent to the credit card in France is the deferred debit card, which operates like a normal debit card, except that all purchase transactions are postponed until the end of the month, thereby giving the customer between 1 and 31 days of interest-free credit. The annual fee for a deferred debit card is around €10 more than for one with immediate debit. (Wikipedia)
The French may OWN a bit less but they also OWE a lot less. This has good and bad consequences.
In the US and the UK, the economy has been driven by household spending, consumption has been driven by credit, and a lot less in France, so that's why when there were periods of expansion France grew a lot more slowly than the UK and the US but conversely when it's slowing down, it will slow down in a more moderate fashion than the UK or the US. (on BBC News)

For more on the credit card, I would suggest an excellent Frontline Investigation called "The Secret History of the Credit Card", a program that should be shown in every school across the nation.


Sunday, October 12, 2008

Maths in France

Here's a pretty good summary of one of the current issues in the French Educational system (from this week's The Economist) :
FRANCE may think of itself as a literary society, but real prestige is reserved for mathematics. Excellence in maths determines access to the elite, via ultra-selective grandes écoles such as the École Nationale d’Administration or the Polytechnique. More French mathematicians have won the Fields Medal, a top international prize, than those from any other European country. Top maths graduates working in French banks have pioneered some of the market’s most complex equity derivatives. So there has been some head-scratching at the idea that Xavier Darcos, the education minister, is now considering an end to the pre-eminence of maths in the baccalauréat school-leaving exam.

The idea is part of a review of the French lycée system, due to be unveiled shortly. Currently, even the brightest literary minds are guided towards the maths-heavy Baccalauréat Scientifique, rather than towards other versions emphasising literature or social science. The “Bac S” has become the gold standard, regardless of what students intend to study later. Fully 19% of those who take the Bac S go on to prepare for the prestigious grandes écoles exams, compared with just 7% of those from other streams. Now Mr Darcos wants to end the supremacy of maths and introduce a modular Bac, based on a common core of subjects with optional “majors”.

Why is maths losing its appeal? One answer could be that the maths-heavy system is no longer a guarantor of social mobility. The French often argue for the meritocratic nature of mathematics, because it is the purest discipline and the least likely to discriminate in favour of educated, bookish families. Yet the share of students at the elite schools from the top socioeconomic class has actually grown: from 57% of those
who graduated in 1965-69 to 82% for the graduates of 1990-99, according to Pierre Veltz, a social scientist.

The financial crisis probably does not help. In the 1980s French banks developed sophisticated equity derivatives, based on the advanced mathematics taught by the French system. Even today, many top banking brains have graduated from the Polytechnique, an engineering school. These days, with regulators hovering, such wizardry is out of favour.


Tuesday, October 07, 2008

SNL - what satire is all about

SNL's recent political satire has definitely made the comedy show relevant again. Not only are millions of people waiting to see them lampoon the political candidates each weekend, but political shows are showing the footage and asking for commentary from pundits. Somehow satire has been made serious.

In light of SNL's sudden political relevance, we thought we'd link to one of our all-time favorite clips that illustrates what SNL has traditionally done well, cultural satire.

This is what satire is all about, going boldly where polite conversation fears to tread: in this case, the feminine vs the maternal. Nothing beats the clip they did putting Palin with Clinton (Fey & Poehler: Below). Nobody captured the tension inherent in that juxtaposition better. Pundits alluded to it but were unable to describe it well. SNL nailed it. SNL's particular approach to satire is also why those Couric/Palin interview spoofs were so damaging: they used Palin's responses verbatim. Palin came across as entirely incurious and unthoughtful. No matter how the talking heads tried to spin it, Palin looked every bit the unserious candidate she is.


Sunday, October 05, 2008

Obama's Superior Economic Plan.

In The Economist this week:

A survey of academic economists by The Economist finds the majority—at times by overwhelming margins—believe Mr Obama has the superior economic plan, a firmer grasp of economics and will appoint better economic advisers.
Economists’ opinions should count for something because irrespective of any party affiliation, most of them approach policy decisions with the same basic tool kit. Their assessment of the candidates’ economic credentials and plans represents an informed judgment on how well they will handle difficult trade-offs between efficiency, equity, growth and consensus-building.

Regardless of party affiliation, our respondents generally agree the economy is in bad shape, that the election is important to the course of economic policy and that the housing and financial crisis is the most critical economic issue facing America.

(The Economist, it must be noted is a magazine whose economic philosophy is based on free trade and globalisation - it is all the more remarkable they should publish this!)


The Other VP Debate.

Palin was played as always by the great Tina Fey. (Jason Sudeikis as Biden and Queen Latifah as moderator Gwen Ifill.)


The Debate That Was Not.

As Kathleen Jamieson put it well on Bill Moyers Journal, the Biden-Palin did not change a whole of things, why? Because it was not a debate but a discourse:
There's no way to win or lose 90 minutes of discourse. You can win an argument.
You can win a chess game. You can win a football game. You can't win 90 minutes
of discourse.
Is that a problem? Well, not if you're watching a game but it may be a different story if you want to assess someone's competence for VP.
The reason that the format matters is that in a format in which you have a short answer, no follow up, no exchange between candidates if a candidate has one layer of information and doesn't have the ability to follow up and follow up and follow up with depth, you don't know that.
That's the format that was not the format that was problematic for Governor Palin when she was interviewed by Katie Couric. Katie Couric's questions and then Governor Palin's problematic answers came largely in the second and third follow ups. And so, the format matters, because it let Governor Palin feature a strength without testing what is a potential weakness.
If you wanted to ask not who won and who lost, but who was qualified to be the next president of the United States in unanticipated circumstances for that question to be answered, you need a more open format with more follow ups and more direct exchange.