Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Super Freakonomics

Recently the sequel to “Freakonomics” has been published as “Super Freakonomics” once again authored by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. While the original book was a sort of tongue in cheek view to six questions with sharply differing topics, but the authors tied these together by mining data from various sources. This sequel is similar but poses only five questions which are fascinating in and of themselves but with a variety of related answers. While the first book clearly was intended as a sort of semi-serious entertainment, this one is sort of and entertaining response to some semi-serious questions. For example the first question posed is “How is a street prostitute like a department store Santa?” This question does eventually get answered but not before the authors wander off to discuss how women have historically been punished just for being female. They explore wage inequities, the punishing of witches, the limited career opportunities for women, and of course prostitution. Certainly these are all interesting and important questions which eventually lead to the fact that prostitution can be very lucrative for a very small investment in time and that it is essentially seasonal in nature – much like department store Santa’s.

Each of these questions posed by Levitt and Dubner is used as the basis to address various incentives and their impact but to explore other related aspects which frequently reveals some very odd and seemingly unconnected answers. Perhaps the most serious of these questions and answers is “Unbelievable stories about apathy and altruism”. However, the actual question posed is “Why did 38 people watch Kitty Genovese be murdered?” This question is used as a launching pad for a whole series of tangential but related questions like “How the ACLU encourages crime? “What caused the 1960”s crime explosion?’ or one of the most interesting of these “Why don’t real people behave like people in the lab?” This latter question illustrates the Heisenberg Principle of Uncertainty in relation to people or how people react when observed versus unobserved.

Clearly this book is more serious than the first one and while the authors continuously refer to economists this book really has little if anything to do with economics. It is mostly an examination of various topics of general interest and how they impact society and in some cases our economy. Perhaps the two most interesting topics they address along these lines is how the required car safety seats do not add safety to a child and in some cases are actually more dangerous than just using seat belts. Of course the economic tie here is the actual saftey results versus the legal requirement for the car seats and the financial advantage for the manufacturers. But the authors have a real sarcastic romp with Al Gore and Global Warming – errr – Global cooling – errr Climate Change. How the scientific facts do not support Al Gore’s inconvenient truth and some of the crazier ideas associated with counteracting climate change. They scoff at the windmills, the myth of carbon dioxide as the driver, and how volcanoes are more than just interesting landmarks. But then they go on to discuss some actual solutions – given that some corrective action is necessary. Of course some of these solutions while technically possible fall into the category of solutions looking for problems.

All in all this is an entertaining book but not the quality of the first. Still I highly recommend this book just for the section dealing with “What do Al Gore and Mount Pinatubo have in common?” That chapter alone is worth the price of the book.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Obama Strategy?

As the decision relative to Afghanistan continues to wait on President Obama, perhaps it is time to ask precisely what his strategy is relative to America and American foreign policy. During one of his overseas trips, President Obama was asked about the exceptionalism of America. Specifically Ronald Reagan viewed America as “A shining city on a hill” and how did President Obama see America? He was very clear in that he did not see America as unique or with any interests above or different from those of – say – Cuba, Greece, or Venezuela. This startling view was reflected in the mainstream media as a refreshing change from the jingoism that has characterized America. Newsweek almost got the vapors in their fawning over President Obama’s stance that America is no longer chauvinistic and parochial, but we stand as equals with the world and that Obama stands above the country – even above the world – “he is sort of God”. I think even with his overweening ego, President Obama might be a little embarrassed by that quote. But it does raise the question of exactly how does President Obama see the US and where does he think our interests lie?

The United States never intended to be world power much less a super power. America never set out to create the Pax Americana – that role was forced upon us by the continued Machiavellian machinations of Europe. It was the nationalistic policies of Europe that initiated the First World War and it was they who dragged America into it. It was they who set the stage for World War II with the Treaty of Versailles and it was they who so destroyed their own countries that they were left defenseless in face of USSR imperialism. So it was the very people who today criticize the US, accuse Americans of being arrogant, and who work against our interests at every turn while relying on the American Military for protection. It is these Europeans who continue their devious and self-destructive policies as they strive to gain control over America and American power through a world government. Is NATO necessary any longer? What benefit does the US gain from NATO other than to annoy the Russians? Does the UN provide any benefit to the US given its domination by Islamic countries and almost universal anti-American stance? This is the situation and questions that face President Obama and how he deals with these is vital to America’s long term interests.

If President Obama has any over arching strategy, it is one of negotiation and withdrawal – ironically this is analogous to the isolationist position the US had in the early 20th Century. If any policy exists today it seems to be to negotiate with North Korea, Palestine, and Iran while abandoning Iraq and Afghanistan. It seems that President Obama has been asleep like Rip van Winkle because he is unaware of the diplomatic efforts of Presidents Clinton and Bush, who have tried negotiating with North Korea, Palestine, and Iran with virtually no effect, although Arafat did stab President Clinton in the back. So what is Obama’s new diplomatic strategy that he plans on using to negotiate? He has leaned on the Israeli’s and supported the Palestinians only to leave both angrier so what is his new basis for negotiation? Perhaps someone should point out that negotiation is not a policy or even a strategy – it is a technique or process that is used in order to accomplish some objective. Both Presidents Bush and Clinton established objectives of disarmament and failed but President Obama’s approach seems to be encapsulated in the term “negotiation” which really reflects the almost total lack of experience both he and his administration have in international affairs. An objective of “peace” doesn’t seem to be very specific and this has been the objective for 16 years without any noticeable change, other to spend millions of dollars which have gone to fund terrorism and into Swiss Banks. So is the current plan to continue the failed policies of the past are does he intend to set new objectives?

So what about the other part of what appears to be President Obama’s over arching strategy of negotiation and withdrawal. It seems that he promised to withdraw the troops from Iraq because they had no business being there in the first place, but this promise seems to have been made to his liberal constituency without any knowledge of the real situation. Iraq is Islamic and has historically been dominated by the Sunni’s who were a minority. The Shiites are the majority and supported by Iran – a Shiite dominated country. The focus seems to be on withdrawing troops rather than a stable government in Iraq. A precipitous withdrawal of American troops could easily throw Iraq into a civil war and destabilize the entire region as the US would be seen as unreliable, intransigent, and defeated by radical Islam. This would greatly strengthen Iran and Hezbollah while dramatically increasing the threat to Israel. Iran has been pushing for a causus belli because the current government is very unstable and they need a unifying force. A perceived defeat of the US by Islam, which is what a withdrawal by the US would be viewed as, would certainly help Iran and would throw Iraq into even greater chaos. But the real problem lies in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan itself is really not the issue, the issue actually is Pakistan. The Taliban supported Al Qaeda who used Afghanistan as a base of operations to attack the US and to spread terror across the world. So the invasion of Afghanistan was actually an attack on the guerilla group known as Al Qaeda who fled into Pakistan. A large part of Pakistan is tribal and only loosely under the control of the central government. It is in these semi-autonomous regions that Al Qaeda found a home from which they launch attacks into Afghanistan and across the world. Once the US began to attack Al Qaeda in these tribal regions the whole area has erupted into chaos and the Taliban is attempting to destabilize Pakistan and to take over the country much as they did in Afghanistan. This is a real threat because in Islam the true Muslim is first and foremost a Muslim with no allegiance to his nation. In Pakistan the government is heavily infiltrated by these radical Muslims who are first Muslim and only secondarily Pakistani. If Pakistan cannot root out these radical forces and establish control then it is possible the substantial nuclear arsenal in Pakistan would fall into the hands of the Taliban and then into the hands of terrorists. Currently the American forces in Afghanistan in association with the Pakistani Army have Al Qaeda and the Taliban caught in classic pincer. But the American Military says they need more troops because the NATO troops there are little more than a token force. The border is very porous, the Pakistani’s hard pressed, and the Americans can’t be everywhere. But President Obama’s liberal supporters are anti-war and want him to withdraw American troops entirely. Apparently he intends to try to satisfy both camps and send some troops into Afghanistan but not the number requested. This of course is the worst possible solution and is a reflection of his total lack of military experience, knowledge of international affairs, and failure to grasp the difference between policies and action.

To date Iran continues its pursuit of nuclear weapons while laughing their way to Obama’s negotiating table. More importantly they are using their diplomats to drive a wedge between Israel and the US because Israel is the only country outside of the US with a military force capable of confronting the Iranian military. The Iranian strategy seems to be to divide and conquer. The North Koreans are playing Obama just like they have played the entire international community into providing them with whatever it is they want at the time, but this is really just a side show and Obama seems to be just going along like Bush and Clinton before him.

So does President Obama have a strategy? Will he make a decision in America’s best interest or does he plan on fulfilling his election promises to his liberal constituency? He no longer has time on his side – he must show his plans now.