Sunni Desert Oasis (and sidewalk storefront) Salesmen

Catholicgauze has an excellent and informative post on the merchants of Iraq. From comment greetings like “Hello my friend!” “Yes, yes, yes,” and, “Please come in,” Catholicgauze continues to describe merchants from the common Iraqi, traveling merchants, high-tech DVD hackers of the computer era, and high-margin Turks.

Read the whole thing, and also check out a related photo series from Getty Images.

IRAQ-SOCIETY

Bush’s Alternate Energy Legacy

While more recently making strange deals with Congressional Democrats to bail out the UAW, one of George Bush’s most important legacies may be his dedication to alternative fuels and sources of energy:

Domestic Fuel » Archives » US Now Tops in Wind Energy
A record-setting year for American wind power keeps getting better as the United States has become the world’s top wind energy producer.

This story from Environment News Service cites an American Wind Energy Association year-end report that says steady growth has helped the Americans surpass their German counterparts

When Bush took office, hybrids like the Toyota Prius were a novelty, E85 and biodiesel hardly existed, and the U.S. was languishing far behind leaders in alternative energy. Now, that is no longer true.

The work that the U.S. has done under Bush has been impressive. Indeed, it may have played a role in popping the oil bubble, as technologies like ethanol made peak-oil irrelevant.

Besides the direct benefits that wind, E85, and biodiesel have for us, they also strengthen new productive economies like China and India, while weakening parasitical fossil-fuel exporters like Venezuela and Russia.

Presidents cannot do everything, but even if their role is to stand out of the way… President Bush still deserves thanks for how America’s alternative energy technologies advanced during his term.

Merry Christmas

christmas_mass_in_beijing

The Birth of Jesus:

The birth of Jesus took place like this. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. Before they came to the marriage bed, Joseph discovered she was pregnant. (It was by the Holy Spirit, but he didn’t know that.) Joseph, chagrined but noble, determined to take care of things quietly so Mary would not be disgraced.

While he was trying to figure a way out, he had a dream. God’s angel spoke in the dream: “Joseph, son of David, don’t hesitate to get married. Mary’s pregnancy is Spirit-conceived. God’s Holy Spirit has made her pregnant. She will bring a son to birth, and when she does, you, Joseph, will name him Jesus—’God saves’—because he will save his people from their sins.” This would bring the prophet’s embryonic sermon to full term:

Watch for this—a virgin will get pregnant and bear a son;
They will name him Immanuel (Hebrew for “God is with us”).

Then Joseph woke up. He did exactly what God’s angel commanded in the dream: He married Mary. But he did not consummate the marriage until she had the baby. He named the baby Jesus.

Matthew 2:18-25.

Boris Yeltsin was the Deng Xiaoping of Russia

Russia has lost her “Deng Xiaoping.” She lost her chance at a “Jiang Zemin.” Instead, she got Putin.

No Jiang Zemin for Russia
No Jiang Zemin for Russia

Boris Yeltsin was China’s Deng Xiaoping. Like Deng, he introduced dramatic free-market reforms that opened up investment with the west. Yeltsin, like Deng, initailly worked but eventually eclipsed the party-line communists of a previous era (Liu Shaoqi and Mikheil Gorbechev). Yeltsin, like Deng, cleverly managed political reforms, at some times leaning towards democracy (to put pressure on unpopular political opponents) and at other times leaning towards authoritarianism (to prevent radicals from changing course).

Unfortunately for Russia, Yeltsin proved as physically frail as Deng was physically dynamic. Yeltsin’s alcoholism (an inherited condition) and a back injury (an environmental one) compounded each other, and led to a shift in political power a generation early. In China, Deng realized that change was a generational affair, and so an entire generation of successors was bypassed (such as Hu Yaobang) until a new one that had politically matured under the reform period was ready to assume power (such as Jiang Zemin). In Russia, by contrast, Yeltsin was too physically weak to hold on, and Russia got Putin instead.

It has been clear for years that Putin is dismantling Yeltsin’s diplomatic legacy. The Moscow Times has a good piece on how Putin is dismantling Yeltsin’s economic legacy, too:

Russia’s nationalistic energy policy after 2003 has stalled the development of major new energy investments (apart from the Sakhalin projects, which date back to the Boris Yeltsin era). Gazprom and Rosneft have financed themselves with foreign debt rather than with equity capital, accounting for almost one-fifth of Russia’s corporate foreign debt of $490 billion. Gazprom’s aggressive pricing and delivery disruptions have scared away customers, reducing the demand for its gas.

Huge public funds are being diverted to state corporations, which either hoard the money or siphon it off. In their new book “Putin and Gazprom,” Boris Nemtsov and Vladimir Milov have offered a staggering and credible account of how Putin and his friends pilfered assets of $80 billion from Gazprom during his second term as president. Investors have taken notice, slashing Gazprom’s market capitalization from $350 billion last spring to $70 billion at its nadir. Although Russia is the 46th-richest country in the world in per capita terms, it is ranked 147 out of 180 countries on Transparency International’s corruption perception index for 2008. Only Equatorial Guinea is both richer and more corrupt than Russia.

Under Putin, transparency has systematically been reduced, and we no longer dare to trust the government’s public statements on its currency reserves. Officially, they have declined by $163 billion, or 28 percent, from $598 billion in early August to $435 billion in early December. But when Vneshekonombank was given $50 billion of state reserves to help Russian oligarchs with refinancing, nothing was deducted from the official reserves as it should have been. In an article on Gazeta.ru on Oct. 24, Alexei Mikhailov plausibly claimed that another $100 billion or $110 billion of “other reserves” had been transferred to the banking system and were nothing but rubles. To my knowledge, no official denial has been issued. If that were correct, the reserves have fallen by more than half to less than $300 billion, but the government sheds no light on this.

Russia’s largest corporations have turned out to be much more leveraged than anybody had thought. The government has made clear that it will refinance their foreign loans to secure “strategic” ownership. So far, $13 billion has been paid, out of which United Company RusAl has received $4.5 billion and Altima $2 billion, but such private pledges are huge. Vneshekonombank has $37 billion left to spend, but it has already asked for $30 billion more from the government, and more is likely. Thus, Russia can swiftly lose more than $100 billion of reserves.

Instead, Vladimir Putin
Instead, Vladimir Putin

Putin has persistently denied that anything is wrong with the country’s economic policy, while everything but its fiscal policy has been wrong. Domestic and foreign businesspeople realize that he does not talk about reality, which undermines confidence in the Russian market. Without free public debate, rational policy decisions are unlikely.

Incredibly, the government is repeating its mistake from 1998 to maintain a pegged exchange rate in the face of falling commodity prices. Until this summer, this policy provoked speculative capital inflows that boosted the money supply excessively and propelled inflation to 15 percent. Now, the pegged exchange rate, which is probably overvalued by up to 25 percent, promotes speculative capital outflows, quickly reducing the currency reserves. Devaluations in very small steps only convince the market that a major depreciation is inevitable. The coming combination of loose fiscal policy, negative real interest rates, current and capital account deficits and an overvalued ruble is unsustainable. The incentives for capital flight are overwhelming.

The global economic crisis is testing Putin’s system. He has undermined the ground under the house Yeltsin built, transforming the country into a house of cards ready to tumble. He has wasted the oil wealth rather than investing it in infrastructure, health care, education and law enforcement reform. Russia needs fundamental change; above all, it needs to uproot — or at the very least contain — the country’s pervasive corruption, which has gotten markedly worse under Putin. Nothing would serve the country better than the retirement of the failed prime minister, but that is evidently not in the cards.

When Boris Yeltsin gave way to Vladimir Putin, Russia lost her chance to continue opening up to the world. Instead, she faded into the gap of the global economy, and is once again a country that produces nothing war, death, and vodka.

Short Review of “Who Killed Vincent Chin?”

It costs one hundred to rent and several hundred to buy,  but watched Who Killed Vincent Chin? last night. Vincent Chin was an engineer who killed in 1982 with the baseball bat by Ronald Ebens, a Chrysler worker.

The documentary was positively reviewd in the New York Times and nominated for an Academy Award. It revolves around interviews with the killer, Ron Ebens, his wife, Juanita Ebens, and the victim’s mother, Lily. Ronald pled guilty to manslaughter (for which he was charged a $3,000 fine) and acquited on a federal civil rights charge. A civil suit was filed after the documentary premiered, and is not covered in the presentation.

who_killed_vincent_chin

In the film, no one comes across worse than County Circuit judge Charles Kaufman (1920-2004). By the end of the film, it’s hard to sustain anger against Ron Ebens or even believe the federal prosecuture’s allegation of a racially-motivated killing: Ron seems to be a working-class thug, and a functioning justice system would process him accordingly. Judge Kaufman apparently did not agree to be interviewed, so his side of the story is told only by an embarrassing clip from an interview, with the judge complaining about being overworked.

Who Killed Vincent Chin is a deep documentary, one that provides a meta-narrative to coverage a scandal I have no memory of, and oen that could be extended an extra half-hour with all that has happened since its debut twenty years ago.

Review of “CJ7” by Stephen Chow

If Charles Dickens was subtle, he would be Stephen Chow.

Stephen Chow’s CJ7 is a film on two levels. On one, a superficial level that is quite enjoyable, a schoolboy meets an adorable alien travel, in a plot that is an improved version of ET. On another, a deeper level that produces striking cinematography, it is a story about the pervasive poverty of China’s uneducated working class.

CJ7 revolves around an uneducatd laborer who spends most of his income on his son’s tuition. If you watched any of the documentaries on contemporary China in the run-up to the Olympics, you saw a number of variations of this story. Indeed, the documentary Up the Yangzte presents a feature-length exploration of the topic. But what can be numbing and foreign in a serious presentatoin is more approachable under Chow’s direction. The son’s school is not just a good school, but an impossible modern one — laptops on every child’s desk, one apparently Irish pupil who speaks fluent Cantonese, and none of this is remarked upon by any of the characters

To pay for this, the father works at a high-rise job site. Work revolves around a mercurial boss, who’s mix of physical violence and deep sympathy is reflected in several other relationships in the movie. In one of the very first lines, the boy who is the focus of the film is asked, “What does your father do.” The reply is straight-forward: “He is a coolie.”

The family’s lack of material positions is never far from their minds. Summer nights are too hot to sleep,and a subplot of the film involves finding and then reparing a mechanical fan. (“Is it real?! Does it work?!”) The father and son watch cartoons and a report of local bumpkins witnessing a US from the sidewalk, in a scene that transition into the boy demanding a toy (to fit in at school) that his father can’t possibly afford.

The surface plot camouflages this. The words of a reviewer at IMDB, “The story is no longer serious or ambitious,” belies just how serious and ambitious the story is. The children’s story on the face of CJ7, and its intersection with the Dicksonian novel at its heart, is too involved to describe here. The scenes of the this work are too compelling to ignore.

Stephen Chow is best known in America for “Kung-Fu Hustle” and “Shaolin Soccer.” CJ7 is a far superior effort.

Buy it from Amazon.com on DVD or Blu-Ray, rent it from Greencine, or get ahold of it any way you can.

CJ7 is the best film I have seen in a long time.