Friday, December 22, 2006

Goode and Islamophobia

Turns out I'm represented by a bigot! My congressman, Virgil Goode (R-VA) has shown himself to be a despicable hatred-monger. The figure is a copy of his letter to constituents, written on his official letter head where he starts off by saying that he will always swear on the Bible and not the Koran (duh!) and that somehow people swearing by the Quran (my preferred spelling!) indicates something despicable.

Goode is hardly alone in his vitriol. The story was made national headlines by talk-show host, Dennis Prager who had this to say:
America is interested in only one book, the Bible. If you are incapable of taking an oath on that book, don't serve in Congress.

Someone forgot to explain to zealots like Prager that that is a violation of the idea of America! Indeed, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life points out that Ellison is not even the first candidate to not swear on the Bible; his predecessors include one famous gentleman by the name of John Quincy Adams, who swore on a law volume instead. And yet Christian groups like the American Family Association are joining in the chorus, asking their members to pressure their legislatures to pass laws requiring a swearing with the Bible, and disallowing other religious texts. To these enlightened souls, I, an immigrant to this land, give you the First Amendment, the cornerstone of American democracy:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

As you can tell, I'm disgusted by this hatred. When George Allen made his famous 'maccaca' remark, I gave him the benefit of doubt, suggesting he had not intended it as a slur. But now a much more insidious bedrock emerges ...

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Speaking of Faith with Leila Ahmed

I recently heard a fantastic interview with Dr Leila Ahmed of the Harvard Divinity School on Islam and common Western misconceptions about Muslim women. This is really one of those insightful interviews everyone must listen to. Here's just one point to ponder - if Islamic women are really that repressed, then why is it that there have been 7 Muslim women heads of state, but only 2 or 3 in Europe, and none in the US?

Click play on the player to listen to the interview, or here for the Speaking of Faith page on American public radio.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Schieffer on Bayh

I love Bob Schieffer and his program, 'Face the Nation', and I loved his commentary on Sen. Evan Bayh's decision not to run for the Democratic nomination for president in 2008:

Evan Bayh is a well-regarded, two-term Senator from Indiana but he is not exactly a household name. So when he announced two weeks ago that he was thinking about running for the Democratic presidential nomination, even he knew it was a long shot. He acknowledged it was a David-versus-Goliath kind of thing, but he remembered that David did pretty well. True enough, but yesterday Bayh realized why the smart money is usually on the giants — because they are giants — and he quit the race as quickly as he had entered.

"Whether there were too many Goliaths or whether I'm just not the right David, I concluded the odds were longer than I felt I could possibly pursue," he said. In other words, he took a look, realized he had no chance and decided not to waste his time or the country's.

How refreshing! None of this "I decided I wanted to spend more time with my family," or the catalogue of excuses we've come to expect from usual wanna-bes — or even worse, one of those ego trip campaigns that all involved know is headed nowhere except to get some TV time for the candidate. Bayh just concluded it wasn't to be and said so.

The one downside is, that is just the kind of straight talk we need more of in politics. A man so candid about himself and his chances might have had some interesting thoughts on other subjects. In a way, I'm sorry we won't get to hear them.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006


A recent UNICEF report finds that abortion rates for female fetuses have been rising in India despite the improved economic conditions, and actually increasing faster in richer states and among richer communities with access to medical technology that allows the determination of the sex of the baby. While India loves to flout their recent successes, this is a shocking failure of all spheres of life - the government, social groups and the populace at large. Needless to say, the federal government expressed "alarm" ... and yet they fail to do a damn thing. Want to stop this nonsense - become serious about prosecution. Declare a sex-based abortion as murder of highest priority, launch a special police force to target doctors who support the practice, and other enforcement actions. But also do more to improve the lot of women. Establish a variety of sops that make it financially beneficial to have girls, starting with (and this is hard for a conservative to say) subsidies for farmers for every girl child they have, and other aggressive actions.

Ok, that wasn't particularly specific, but my point is that a nation that can build a nuclear bomb, and grow its economy at 8% a year can come up with solutions for the female infanticide problem, if it was placed as a national priority!

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Quote of the Day

Jagdish Bhagwati, professor at Columbia University and author of the book 'In Defense of Globalization', on the fear of the deficits with China, and calls for tariffs on Chinese goods:

The Chinese surplus is cited as the cause of the U.S. deficit. This is a non sequitur. If they were to revalue, and our excess spending through the budget deficit were to continue, our deficit would continue but be directed to other nations than China. China, and also India, are such large countries and rapidly growing economies that they inculcate unjustified fear.

Friday, December 01, 2006

The Smoking Isotope

Question: what do recently murdered ex-KGB spy Alexander Litvinenko and your favorite serving of Marlboro Lights have in common?

Answer: Poloniom 210.

Turns out that cigarettes contain the deadly radioactive isotope in sufficient quantities that pack and a half smokers get as much radiation as 300 chest X-rays a year! With an estimated 100 million dead from smoking already, now may be the time to put that cigarette away!

Steven the Vegan

I saw this Youtube video on a friend's blog and had to post it on here because it's gold, baby, gold! I'm not vegan, but I am vegetarian, and Steven really touched a nerve ... and made my laugh my ass off!

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Equity in Obesity

While incomes and living standards between rich and poor countries are constantly diverging, the Third World is catching up with the West in one area - obesity. I was shocked to read that obesity is a HUGE issue in Africa. Consider this:
More than one-third of African women and a quarter of African men are estimated to be overweight, and the World Health Organization predicts that will rise to 41 percent and 30 percent respectively in the next 10 years... Some 56 percent of South African women are now either obese or overweight, compared to fewer than 10 percent who are underweight. More than 17 percent of adolescents here are overweight _ for teenage girls, it's 25 percent, according to the Medical Research Council.

Already, diabetes is the fourth largest disease in most developed countries, with an estimated 194 million sufferers. This number is expected to skyrocket as the incidence of diabetes in the developing world increases, as is expected. Just how much is evident when you check out the Diabetes Atlas put out by the Internation Diabetes Foundation. Switch the year from 2003 to 2025, and bam!

Friday, November 24, 2006

Iraq Moves Towards Civil War

Today's carnage in Iraq, when Shiite mobs torched and killed more than 200 Sunnis in the deadliest day in that country, is a grim preview of what might become all too commonplace if US troops leave. Yes, many Americans want their men and women back; yes, intellectuals argue that the American presence might be inflammatory; yes, Iraq might already be in the midst of a civil war ... but are we really ready to see a large-scale genocide where tens of thousands of Shiites and Sunnis are butchered? And on whose hands would the blood be, given we deposed that crazy tyrant who kept the factions from killing each other. Well, yes, it was the Bush administration and the neocons who pushed for the case, but the US as a nation has a collective responsibility ... and indeed would have an ethical responsibility to prevent genocide if it were to happen.

Much has been talked about Darfur and the crisis there ... some Americans even support the idea of American boots on the ground to prevent the rape and massacre of the local people at the hands of Janjiweed militia. And yet, here in Iraq, we have boots on the ground, and the minute the boots leave, the killing will begin!

Monday, November 20, 2006

Young at Heart

I had a very distressing conversation with one of our janitors today, a wonderful woman whose 26-year old neice just passed because of a heart attack. While all deaths are tragic, the loss of a young single mother in the prime of her life of a disease considered an older-person's disease is truly shocking. So I looked on WebMD to see how common heart attacks among younger people are. The study they cite was quite shocking:
The investigators examined young people aged 15 to 34 who had died in a car accident, homicide, or suicide and found that even in men as young as 15, over 2% of them had advanced cholesterol plaques in the arteries of their heart. More than 20% of men aged 30 to 34 had these advanced plaques. Such plaques can turn into atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. That can lead to complete blockages, heart attacks, and strokes.

They recommend that everyone over 20 check their cholestrol levels every five years. But in the end, for most people, there are the same familiar words: diet, exercise, lifestyle choices. So think about your mom weeping over your hospital bed or casket the next time you decide that fries are a vegetable or switching channels on a remote is exercise!

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Thoughts from Our Nation's Capital

I just returned from spending the weekend with a visiting aunt in Washington, DC. A very enjoyable trip indeed, it also gave me some pause for reflection. Two images in particular stand out in my memory .. and my phone memory too (ha, I did use my phone's camera after all!)

The first image is from the Korean War Veteran's Memorial. I loved the words "defend a country they never knew and a people they never met". People draw comparisons between the present war in Iraq with the failed war in Vietnam, but never consider that American "adventurism" is the reason the South Korean nation is strong and her people enjoy freedoms, unlike their starving brethen across the border. (Just to use per-capita GDP as a comparison, the Southerns' produce about $22,600 versus $1,700 for their communist compatriots)

American adventurism was often ridiculed, and sometimes justifiably, but we should never forget the ethical obligation we have to act to defeat dictators.

The other image that struck me was an exhibit from the Smithsonian Castle. (sorry for the poor image) These are samples of US currency notes (fiat currency as it is called). Why did it strike me? It reminds us that there is nothing sacrosant about the dollar. Indeed, the shells to the bottom right were valid currency at one time, just that they weren't backed by the famous "full faith of the US Treasury". Keep that in mind the next time you hear this nonsense of how the Chinese are fixing their currency, or what the underlying value of the US dollar is. A currency is a promissory note, that's it, nothing more, nothing less (which is why there's a school of thought which believes that money is gold and nothing else, which is interesting until you realize that if the value of a gold coin can fluctuate as significantly as has been the case, the whole store of value argument in a truckload of BS!)

Friday, November 17, 2006

Fast Food Nation: The Movie

I'm looking forward to the release of the movie version of Eric Schlosser's 'Fast Food Nation '. I loved the book, about the various facets of our fast food chains, from their meat handling practices to their pursuit of a temporary workforce, to what the implications of this culture are on our landscape. I am especially curious about the movie because it's fiction rather than a documentary. The International Herald Tribune gave it a pretty positive review, and I think so did NPR. This movie is currently playing in a theater near you.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

A New Values Revolution

I was talking yesterday with an acquaintance who is experiencing some difficulty with the father of her child with child support payments. Her quest to avoid the legal system for an amicable (and seeming more than reasonable) settlement has met with little besides resistance from the father. Add in the fact that the father has not visited his son once in 15 months, including for a period when they were within a 3-hour drive of each other, and let's just say that the gentleman in question isn't likely to win 'Father of the Year' any time soon.

That got me thinking about all the talk of values in this nation of ours. Social conservatives seem to think gay marriage, abortion and school prayer define the values debate, while liberals have tried to twist the issue into one of throwing money into social programs, success be damned. But there is a large swatch of societal morality that has nothing to do with sex or poverty that is left out.

There is an epidemic of deadbeat dads in this nation. In historic times, men fought and sometimes risked their lives to protect their kin. Thankfully, modern times have made the life of the father or husband somewhat simpler. And yet, among us live men (and yes, women) who abandon their responsibility to the children - a responsibility that should be upheld even with one's own life!

We love to talk about gay marriage, be us for or against it, but what about that institution of marriage that groups chose either to protect or diversify. With record divorce rates, it's worth pondering over whether we as a society have protected this institution at all. Without prejudging individuals, it is certainly a damning indictment on our society's ability to implant a spirit of compromise on its constituents.

I could go on, but it's obvious that we have clearly failed to address the values that truly matter. Because there's no point clinging to Jesus when you forsake the principles he stood for, and it's shallow to be croning about minimum wages when you fail to show that compassion for those around you.

More Troops for Iraq?

The British newspaper, the Guardian reported that the Bush administration planned to increase the troop levels in Iraq, rather than the withdrawal that Democrats and indeed many Americans have been calling for. This truly stunned me, and would probably be about the gutsiest thing Bush has ever done. Would it work? Tough to say. Sen. McCain has been pushing this viewpoint for a while now, but Gen. Abizaid publicly disagreed with the utility of this strategy a few days ago. The best guess is noone knows - just like everything else that has happened in Iraq. It's a strategy even Republicans will be uncomfortable with, and could alternately viewed as an out-of-touch presidency, or a president who doesn't rule by opinion polls like his predecessor.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The World May Be Warming ...

Amazingly for a tree-hugging conservative (how's that for an oxymoron!), this will be my first post on global warming! That's because I've been cautious about popular scientific predictions - be it the global warming warnings or the claims that the world is running out of oil. I simply do not know enough about the science of these subjects to make an intelligent argument one way or the other. I have watched 'An Inconvenient Truth', but still remain far from convinced that the science definitively states that the world is warming due to human activity. I'm impressed by the massive consensus in peer-reviewed literature that the world is warming due to human activity, but also know that sometimes the peer-review process forces consensus when none should exist. Add in the fact that scientists do not acquire grants for postulating the absence of a problem, and you have reasons to be skeptical of the scientific community.

So why have I chosen to break my silence on the topic? Simply because I've become convinced in the wisdom of one man. Jeremy Grantham, co-founder of Grantham, Mayo, Van Otterloo & Co. (or GMO) , an investment firm, pointed out in a recent newsletter that in reality, the need to act due to global warming despite the uncertainties is not unique to this topic. In fact, it is the underpinning of the insurance business. And therein lies the paradigm the policymakers need to embrace - dollars invested in a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions need not require certainty in the facts, but rathet simply that the consequences of a reasonably possible outcome far exceed the incremental costs to alleviate such an outcome.

Really the costs are not likely to be significant if an adequate trading system is implemented. Emissions in China (which contributes to 15% of global greenhouse gases) and other third-world countries is actually rather cheap to fix given adequate investments, which could be achieved in the form of purchase of carbon credits by firms in the developed world, which would have a much tougher challenge squeezing efficiencies from their already advanced systems. (There are other issues, including local air pollution that would have to be worked out)

The reality then is that while not simple, the global warming crisis (or threat) can be handled by approaches not unlike other threats. That the world's dominant economic superpower has not shown more leadership on this issue is then a travesty!

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Let's Do Something - Even If It Does Nothing Good

So it now looks like all the minimum wage initiatives have or will pass - in Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Montana, Nevada and Ohio. And voters in these states can pat themselves on their backs, deluding themselves that they have moved millions into a better life. Too bad it isn't true.

The whole argument in favor of raising the minimum wage has been something like this - an employee who earns $5.15 an hour and works full-time earns only $10,712 a year, which is too little. There is then this image that somehow huge swathes of people make do on $10,712 a year, often a guy supporting a wife and a few kids - truly a tragedy!

Unfortunately, it's a big hoax! According to the BLS (yes, I spend my spare time digging around in these places!), only 1.4% of all full-time workers make at or below the minimum wage. 71.9% of those workers are in the leisure and hospitality industry, where tip income, not wages, dominates take-home pay. That alone means that the targeted group is about 0.4% of employees. But wait, there's more:

6.3% of minimum wage earners are below the age of 25, a good number of whom are possibly high school or college students.

62% of minimum wage earners have never been married, while only 24% are currently married.

Ok, and save the best for last. You know all the hoopla of how the minimum wage adjusted for inflation is the lowest since 1955. I don't know if that's true, but here's what BLS data tells us ...

The percentage of hourly paid wage earners earning at or below the minimum wage has fallen from 13.4% in 1979 (and 15.1% in 1980) to a mere 2.7% in 2004!

Even more worrying than merely the increase in minimum wage is that the minimum wages are tied to inflation, with no upper cielings (except in Nevada, where the increase is capped at 3%). That means if, say oil prices surge, we could have a cost push inflation spiral that could result in stagflation!

Washed Away...

Whoa, the Republicans just got washed away by the Democratic storm! What a drubbing indeed! Bush and the others have a lot of thinking to do.

You know who else has a lot of thinking to do ... Democrats. This is their chance to define who they are, besides being anti-Republican. A big battle for the heart and soul of the Democratic party should ensue, between tax-loving big government leftists and the new centrists they attracted. And that could influence how potential voters like me exercise their rights in the future. (Ok, that was just rheotorical - I'm a foreigner and don't get to vote)

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Wow for American Democracy!

I have recently been somewhat cynical about democracy, but one poll worker has restored my faith in the American democratic system. This lady refused to allow Gov. Mark Sanford (R-SC) from voting without his voter registration card. To his credit, he was quite a good sport about it, not throwing his weight around, and appreciating the woman's conscientious nature.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Stupid in Kerryland

My brother e-mailed me recently to question why I hadn't blogged about the botched Kerry joke about troops in Iraq, and more specifically, the Republican attack on what was obviously a botched joke. Well, quite frankly, because I don't expect anything else. Neither side can afford to pass on any opportunity at this stage in the game, and will use any weapon it can to try to eke an edge out.

Frankly, I'm at a stage in the campaign where I'm mostly filled with disgust! You'd think I'd be used to having to endure attack ads rather than a discussion of the issues, but I'm weakhearted enough to keep expecting politics to be about the issues that matter to the people.

So who will I be rooting for tomorrow? Well, this will shock the frequent readers to my blog, but I don't know. Part of me would like to see the Republicans pay for their arrogance, but that would imply the Democrats would win, and I don't know which Democratic party would take control of the House or Senate. If it is the wing that is pro-business, for fiscal discipline and in favor of tax cuts - the constituency Harold Ford seems to be shooting for - I say yay! But if it is the left-leaning tax-the-rich business-is-bad liberals like Nancy Pelosi, then we have something to be gloomy about.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Tyranny of the Majority

I have been contemplating on the nature of democracy recently, and it strikes me that there's a fine line seperating democracy from its less desirable peers. In all forms of government, abuse of power is a concern. In democracy, we often worry about our elected officials abusing their office, but we seldom fret about we, the people, doing the same.

What do I mean by that? We love to crone about the influence of money on politics, yet as a polity, we vote on issues where you have an equal say independent of how much the action will cost you. I have ranted previously that contrary to the rheoteric, the rich in America pay a disproportionate share of our taxes. The top 5% that Democrats love to crone about pay 30% of their income in taxes, while the lowest 25% wage-earners pay less than 5%. Why should politicians get to pander to that larger voting block promising freebies, paid for by the smaller voting block? To borrow an analogy from a columnist I can't remember, that would be like you going to a bar and offering to buy a homeless man a drink, and asking the bartender to put it on the tab of the guy across from you.

But the tyranny of the majority stretches past taxes. Think of our medicare system. In a free society, we each should be allowed to make choices, and part of me really dislikes restrictions on smoking or other behavior. If you want to kill yourself, you go right ahead.

But hold on a minute! Unfortunately, it isn't quite as simple as that. Medicare (ok, humanity too, but I'm trying to be economic here!) means I do care about your actions. There was a woman on the news who wasn't thrilled about KFC's recent decision to eliminate trans-fats, worried it might compromise the flavor of the dishes she loves. Good for you, woman... unless you are on a medical assistance program. Overweight and obesity problems cost over $75 billion a year, and over half of it is paid for by Medicare and Medicaid (source) Given that under 10% of the population uses this benefit (in insurance terms) paid for by the entire taxbase, one could argue there's some justifiable outrage at the frequent visitors to your neighborhood artery-clogging fast food joint. The same holds for smoking, which it has been estimated costs Medicare over $20 billion.

By the way, I'm not suggesting that fat people are always guilty for their fate. However, it does help to pause and think about the issues in this light. Democrats would do well to consider the fairness of their proposals on spending and taxes. Republicans may want to consider that their policy avoiding restrictions on businesses that kill, while consistent with a society where individuals make decisions for themselves, fails to take into account that we as taxpayers are having one major decision made for us - the decision to fund other people's behavior.

Monday, October 30, 2006


Some interesting numbers to ponder over the next time you hear a story about the Federal Reserve or its chairman, Ben Bernanke. (Due to some unknown HTML artifact, you may have to scroll down some white space to see the rest of this post)

United States GDP$12.49 trillionsource
Market capitalization of companies listed on the NYSE$21 trillionsource
Money supply (M2) in the US as of August 2004$9.26 trillionsource
Total assets held by the Federal Reserve Banks, which supposedly control the US economy (FY2005)$0.065 trillion source

For insight into the miniscule size of the Federal Reserve Bank, I am thankful to Dr John Hussman of Hussman Econometrics and manager of the Hussman Funds.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Democracy, Thy Name is Chaos!

Oh what a runup to the mid-terms it has been. You have liberals potraying Bush as the devil, and conservatives potraying Nancy Pelosi as ... the devil! You have liberals embracing a Reagan Republican in Jim Webb and a self-proclaimed "Jesus-loving gun-carrying" congressman in Harold Ford, Jr and the conservatives embracing a stem-cell bill they voted against! It's an anything goes environment, where Republicans point out correctly that for all his Jesus antics, Ford is on the guest list at the Playboy mansion, while also fudge the truth by running an ad claiming that a Democrat used taxpayer money to dial a phone-sex line, while it has been proven that it was an accidental misdial. And then in my own state, Jim Webb, whose writings range from the completely acceptable Sidney Sheldon-esque sexual content, to the much more disturbing writings involving dads and sons, and moms and sons in sexual encounters. But due Republicans have a limb to stand on, given that Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, "Scooter" Libby is himself the purveyor of sexual literature, including pedophilia?

In all this chaos, the one thing that rarely gets talked about are the issues. A discussion of the issues would correctly criticize the current administration for botching the war in Iraq, but would also question the specifics of what the Democrats would do. It would involve a discussion of what each party intends to do about entitlements, which is the single largest financial threat that threatens the US (see footnote). It would challenge each party for a pragmatic energy policy, or a plan to control skyrocketing healthcare costs ... economic policy, including taxes, minimum wages, ... oh, I could go on, but none of these issues are ever discussed. Democracy is supposed to be the people electing their representatives to implement their agendas. Funny, looking at our elections, I could be fooled.

Footnote: How serious a crisis entitlement spending is depends on how much of a commitment you think it is. Those who chose to play it down point to the fact that it isn't a contractual requirement, and if it ever causes serious economic harm, the US government could always chose to redefine its commitments. True, but that argument ignores the social unrest such an action might produce.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Debts and GDP

While I was driving home last night, I had the Diane Rehm show on NPR, who had two supposed "experts" on the deficit and debt. And yet, they were stunningly ignorant when it came to some issues, or maybe they had a political agenda? There was one caller who complained about the public debt approaching $9.6 trillion dollars, close to our GDP and the crisis it entailed, and the experts "concurred".

Stop right there! I dislike the deficits too, but cannot allow the propogation of falsehoolds! So I thought I'd try my lay-man's explanation of debt and deficits. (I'm not an economist, so if you think I'm wrong, please correct me!)

To simplify the issue, I am going to shrink all the numbers by 300 million, the population of the US. So we consider John Doe, making about $44,000 (source of 2005 GDP), having a debt of about $28,500 ( source), some investment-oriented e.g. mortgage on a home, loan for a small business) and some unproductive (credit card). A problem? Not exactly. The debt is not what is owed annually but the sum total of liabilities. The former number is the interest expense - about $1,350 a year( source). Turns out Mr. Doe's credit rating is so great that he will probably never ever have to pay back his debt - he could always borrow from another bank to return his debt from the present, the Banks of Japan and China. The interest expense is small compared to the annual pay hikes of about 3% post-inflation (so currently 6%), whereas his debt is currently accruing interest at about 4.5%, so compounding works in Mr. Doe's favor.

Another way to compare numbers is to match up the debt of $28,500 with Mr Doe's total assets, over $300,000 if I remember (I couldn't find my original source for this) - a debt to equity of under 10%. Nothing to lose any sleep over.

I will soon post why then I brood over the deficits, but for now, rest easy in the realization that we are not going to have the Chinese confiscate our properties!!

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Stupid in Omaha

Sometimes you can take a good idea too far, even to the point of stupidity. It seems that what Omaha police have done, asking people to report violations of an anti-smoking law by calling 9-1-1. The good idea is to place some restrictions on smoking in public places. I feel uncomfortable with how far that idea has been taking. I am a health freak, eating only whole-wheat products and working out several times a week, but I do enjoy the occasional cigarette. Silly, some people say, but I'd suggest people would do better to cut out all the fats in their diet than overreact to the occasional cigarette.

But this isn't even a rant of public smoking policy and the infringement on our freedoms under a fake pretext of public safety. It's a rant of the stupidity of crowding out 9-1-1 queues with these non-emergencies. Thankfully, so far the call volume related to this "crime" has been small, but I'd hate to think of the day (oh, and there will be one if this policy persists!) when a serious crime (you know, murder, theft ... what we used to call crimes before we started including petty nonsense) is not stopped because of someone reporting a public smoking offense!

Quote of the Day

Vahan Janjigian in his blog, MoneyMasters, on Google's stock price:
One valuable lesson I have learned over the years is that overvalued stocks can get a whole lot more overvalued before coming back to earth.... Google makes good money. But is it really worth 15 times sales and 45 times projected earnings? might provide a basis for comparison. At its peak, the stock was selling for 30 times sales. Today it sells for only 1.5 times sales.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Say No to a Minimum Wage

I have a new journo who I like - Tim Worstall of the Technology, Commerce and Society or TCS Daily. His latest offering, Spinimum Wage is a fascinating critique of the much-hyped letter from economists demanding an increase in the federal minimum-wage. He points to studies suggesting that the minimum wage is a relatively inefficient instrument to alleviate poverty, when compared with other federal programs. The reason: very few of those in poverty actually work full-time. Those few who do would move out of poverty with a minimum wage hike, but they would lose federal benefits such as Medicare. The net result: zilch! But no, actually negative, because the elevated costs would cause a reduction in the number of jobs available.

Liberals love to crone about how great Europe is, and how the US needs to be more like them, never mind the economic prosperity and low unemployment rates enjoyed by those of us on the right side of the ocean. In another piece here, Worstall points to data from the liberal Economic Policy Institute to show that for all the cries of how bad the poor in America are, the poor in America perform comparably to those in Europe. True, the disparity is greater, because the rich in America do so much better, but switching to a repressive regulatory regime like Germany would not improve the lot of the poor in the US, only serve to make the rest of the country see their standard of living to come down. Oh, and take this:
Wouldn't it be interesting if we were urged to adopt some other Swedish policies? Abolish inheritance tax (Sweden doesn't have one), have a pure voucher scheme to pay for the education system (as Sweden does), do not have a national minimum wage (as Sweden does not) and most certainly do not run the health system as a national monolith (as Sweden again does not). But then those policies don't accord with the liberal and progressive ideas in the USA so perhaps their being glossed over is understandable, eh?

Quote of the Day

Keith Whyte of the National Council on Problem Gambling, on the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act:

I think the best way to sum up this bill is that it makes illegal what is illegal and it legalizes what is legal ... So, really, the prohibition of this bill -- it's illegal to gamble on the Internet in states where it illegal to gamble on the Internet. And in states where it is legal or that might want to legalize it, it's perfectly allowable.

I found the discussion on the Newshour on this Act very interesting - you can read the transcript or watch it online here.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Sanctions Don't Work ... Are You Ready for What May?

Much has been made about sanctions since North Korea's nuclear test. The sad reality is that it doesn't work. The present sanctions on Kim Jong Il's regime include a ban on luxury items, including jewellry and nuclear materials. Hmm, call me a skeptic, but how exactly will banning items the powerful will have access to anyway, and other items that were already banned prevent North Korea from going forward with their nuclear program?

There is one way that might work, but it is simply too hideous for anyone but thugs like Kim Jong Il. That is to stop the subsidy we are providing the Korean nuclear regime. You shaking your head wondering what I'm talking? Well, we provide the food needs of the Korean people, allowing the North Koreans to divert those resources to a military program. A cessation of food aid would cause massive starvation, but might lead to a revolt. But not even the most radical neocons would be able to digest that scenario. Alas, that's how the thugs win every time - because we in the civilized world are unable to call their bluff!

How the Other Half Lives

I was recently stunned to read Roger Lowenstein's column in Smart Money magazine, even if my conclusions were somewhat different from the author's.

precisely 21 percent of Americans have direct investments in listed stocks. And among those who do, the median portfolio value is $15,000... [Mutual funds] are owned by an even slimmer population - 15 percent. And among those who do own them, the median holding is $40,000.

That stunned me, but I reassured myself that the average Joe and Jane probably has money socked away in retirement accounts, and a house - one of the elements of an American Dream. Well, maybe not ... more from Lowenstein:

[Half of all families] have an indirect ownership in stocks and mutual funds via retirement accounts such as 401(k)s and IRAs. But the median value of such accounts is only $35, fact, half of all families have total financial assets of less than $23,000.

That is incredible, when you think that the median family probably earns more than $35,000. How do they imagine they can retire on less than one year's earnings?

SHAME ON THE REPUBLICANS for not pushing financial education. An ownership society only works when you have informed participants - it is clear we do not, and the coming acopolypse will have to be funded by (horror!) taxpayers and tax increases!

SHAME ON THE DEMOCRATS for not seeking to push this issue either. If they really cared about the average Joe rather than electoral politics, they will stop ranting about outsourcing and start focusing on what really matters!

Among those who drop out of high school, median income is $19,000; for those who graduate $36,000. Among college graduates, the median is a respectable but hardly lavish $73,000. However, seven of 10 Americans are not college graduates. Why so few people go to college, given the rewards, is a mystery economists are yet to solve.

SHAME ON THE DEMOCRATS for not recognizing that the way to a better future for workers is not to try and hold blue collar jobs in the US; it is to improve educational opportunities to transition American workers to college and beyond.

SHAME ON THE REPUBLICANS for not investing adequately in our future. Since our economy is tied to the wages of our workers, there is a simple market to boost wages - encourage market participants to move up the skill ladder. However, as we have seen, participants aren't rational, which is why we need the government to educate and inform, and help people move along the path ... there are things a market doesn't efficiently do by itself!

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Heads Must Roll!

I have waited to see what happens in the scandal where Rep. Mark Foley is alleged to have sexually solicited pages working for Congress. I'm amazed that this has become a partisan issue in some quarters. There are few values we hold higher than child protection and anyone involved must go, including the following:

  • Mark Foley from any position of any value (he has already resigned from Congress)
  • Speaker Denny Hastert and other committee chairs who may have known about the issue. It isn't enough to simply claim that they didnt know about the sexually explicit e-mails. In this day and age, simply the appearance of inappropriate conduct with children should have had alarm bells ringing, and triggered a thorough investigation.
  • Members of the FBI, who after having received e-mails that Foley sent the page 2 years ago, chose to do nothing. Even if the FBI is correct that the source's motives were questionable (see next bullet), it could have chosen to do some independent digging by at the very least dispatching some agents to talk to pages in the program. Oh, and it isn't ok to claim you weren't going to move if you didn't know how the source obtained the information!
  • Members of CREW and other liberal associates, if it turns out that they had access to e-mails Foley to the page as early as April, and (as the FBI claims) redacted several sections of the e-mails, and only sent the information to the FBI last month. Hmm, I smell a rat!

    Overall though, there's plenty of blame to go around. But we need to go past partisanship and protect our children. Otherwise, slogans of freedom and liberty are meaningless!
  • Friday, September 29, 2006

    Come Up With a Plan, Dammit!

    I'm sick and tired of Democrats whining about the "failed policy" in Iraq. Here's an idea ... come up with something better. The other day, NPR or PRI had an interview with some looney leftist member of the House of Reps, who used the usual cliches to complain about our failures. Her plan? One, withdraw troops from Iraq to the neighboring countries (which ones exactly would allow us to deploy there) Two, disarm the militia (ok, first it's a little hard to disarm the militia when you just left the country, and you really think the US army hasn't tried to do that?) And three, start a political dialogue (blah blah ... we have been doing that!)

    In a nutshell, most Democrats don't have a plan. There are a few sensible ones out there, but if the leftist wing of the party siezes control like they did in Connecticut, then it will be the demise of the party, and possibly our democratic system!

    I'm Ashamed of Hollywood

    So one more Hollywood celebrity talks about being ashamed for his country - this time, the nutjob in question is Oliver Stone. Well, Oliver, too bad you're so ashamed. Maybe you should swap citizenship with one of those hungry immigrants who survives the tortures of the desert, risking death, drinking his own urine to stay hydrated, getting poked in the face trying to get water from a cactus, all so that he can move to this shameful country.

    I mean, what do you mean we have to lose a few of our liberties? I mean, these are too precious for us intellectuals ... so what if a few average Joes die in terrorist attacks. Ideals count for more than lives! As Oliver notes, we should fight like the British or the Spanish ... slowly, allowing a ton of people to die in the process. We'll call them martyrs ... hey, we could make a few movies about it. I mean, you can't really make a movie about whipping some Taliban ass in Afghanistan ... that just doesnt sell. But a few more 9/11s ... we can do with. Movies about heroism inspire a nation, right? So what if some poor SOBs die in the process ...

    Oh yeah, and there's always a cabal that's taken over the government. Don't you people read your literature? They are hand in glove with the "terrorists". It's all a grand big plot to take over our lives.

    Monday, September 25, 2006

    Watch Out for CapOne!

    These days, surviving the financial world we live in seems to require a fair bit of due diligence! I learnt this the hard way when I discovered that Capital One reports your highest ever balance rather than your credit limit to credit bureaus, thereby potentially denting your credit score. (source)

    Let me back up for a second and explain how credit scores work. One of the big factors that affect your FICO score is your debt utilization rate. What that means is that if you have a balance of $1,000 on a card with a $5,000 credit limit, your debt utilization is 20% (1,000/5,000 * 100). You want that rate to be as low as possible for each of your cards - any time that rate goes up over 50%, your credit score gets dinged! That's why it's better to have your balance split between 5 cards than on one card, all things being equal.

    What Capitol One does is to report your highest ever balance rather than your credit limit. So if you currently have $50 on your card, and this is the first month you've ever charged on this card, a credit bureau will think I've maxed out my card, even if my credit limit is $100,000 (ok, it isn't, but you get the idea!) WHAM! So, I will have to pay off the Capital One card, which I was lured to get by a 0% introductory APR, defeating the purpose of getting the card in the first place. BOO to Capital One!

    One more thing - if you do pay off on a card, DO NOT close the account; this will end up hurting your score, because your overall debt utilization just went up!

    Thursday, September 21, 2006

    Lift 'Em Weights

    A new study in the Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise (July 2006) shows that lifting weights can help to prevent and to treat diabetes (source). In the study, adolescent boys who implemented a twice-weekly weight training program for only 4 months built muscle, lost fat and decreased insulin resistance, dramatically reducing their risk of diabetes. So if you've been a couch potato, or even if you are one of those people who runs miles but never lifts, now is the time to pick up those weights. Studies have consistenly shown that there is no better way to lose weight than to lift weight!

    Sunday, September 17, 2006

    Viva Wal-Mart

    As a grad student, I live on a pretty tight budget. Heaven knows what I would have done without Wal-Mart and Sam's Club (although recently the prices and choices at Kroger has me wondering if I should renew my Sam's Club membership). So it obviously annoys me when constituents like me are ignored by rich anti-Walmart liberals who love to bash the chain and all capitalism stands for. Enter George Will to the rescue, with a passionate piece that puts numbers behind some of my arguments...

    Will notes that more than 25,000 people applied for the 325 openings for the Walmart at Evergreen Park, IL - a far cry from the cries of poverty level wages! In fact, Wal-mart hires 1.3 million employees, making it the largest private employer and with as many personnel as the US military. Saves shoppers $200 billion a year! Oh, I could go on, but just read the article for yourself... and say viva Wal-Mart!!

    Thursday, September 07, 2006

    The Lie of Diminishing Wages

    The other day, I was listening to the McLaughlin Group on PBS, and Eleanor Clift of Newsweek (not exactly my favorite journo!) made a claim that workers are getting screwed, and after adjusting for inflation, the average worker earns less than what he/she did in 1973. I immediately thought this was a stunning claim that, if true, would have me question the merits of the capitalist society we live in.

    Time allows a more rational analysis. First, why 1973? It seems an arbitrary starting point. Any time anyone makes a claim relative to a murky baseline, be suspicious ... be very suspicious. So I used the Bureau of Labor Statistics web site to probe the data and produce the graphs used in this post. (All data is for the duration that earnings data is available)was dramatic

    The first graph is a plot of the average weekly earnings in 1982$ (that is correcting for inflation). Now it becomes obvious why Clift uses 1973, it was the year of peak weekly earnings. Ok, but isn't her point true that the average worker makes less than he/she did in 1973? Well, yes it's true, but not because corporations have been screwing John and Jane Doe.

    This second chart presents the Consumer Price Index for all urban consumers (CPI-U). As you can see, inflation (rate of change of the CPI-U) soared in the 1970s, thanks in large part due to oil prices and stagflation, until about 1983, after which the inflation rate has been relatively stable. The real wages of workers reflects that fact - tumbling in the years following 1973, and stabilizing after 1983 (yes, there have been ups and downs related to economic climate, but that's natural).

    Critics of static wages use another subterfuge. They use a sleight-of-hand analogy to imply that the stagnant average weekly wages of a population imply stagnant wages for an individual worker. That is simply not true - people at the high end of the wage cycle retire, and are replaced by young men and women at the bottom of the cycle. The performance of average wages then is quite demographics of the population, and heaven knows Americans aren't having babies like there's no tomorrow. Then, in an ageing population, we should see real wages decline, and that we don't is a reflection of how the fruits of economic prosperity are translating into real wage improvements for the average worker!

    Saturday, September 02, 2006

    Respect the People

    The decision of a British television network, More4 to show a movie about the assasination of President George Bush, including using doctored photos of his likeness, is shameful! The director's claims that the intentions are simply to present a gripping story cut no ice - this could just as easily have been achieved using a fictional character, like scores of others have done.

    This is part of a worrying trend. Google failure, and the first hit you get is the bio of the President (the fact that Google hasn't fixed the problem is appalling!) You've heard liberals refer to Bush as the dictator and the autocrat, sometimes stretching it to the ridiculous. But whether you like him or not, you do need to respect his office and how he got there. As a lady from (I think) the United Press International berated Eleanor Clift (probably in the ranks of reporters I hate the most) of Newsweek for equating Bush with Putin and his thugs, President Bush was elected by a majority of the American people. Irrespective of his current popularity, we need to respect his office and all it represents ... the fact that the American people have chosen their leader, that they have a real choice (yes, if you are an independent, it's tough, but not impossible for you to win, and nobody breaks your bones for trying).

    In their quest to bash Bush, many liberals are unwittingly taking stabs on the very foundation of the idea of America. If we lose our respect for our ideals, then we would have inflicted a much more calamitous blow to free society than Osama bin Laden or his cronies could ever have hoped.

    Friday, September 01, 2006

    Interview with Warren

    Wow, it has been over 3 weeks since I blogged! My life has been crazy busy recently, but I do hope to getting back to being somewhat frequent with this blog.

    I read this article with Elizabeth Warren, author of the fascinating book The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers Are Going Broke.While I have read part of her book and now the central thesis, this fact still stunned me:
    The data show that more than half of the families who file for bankruptcy do so in the aftermath of a serious medical problem. And three quarters of those people have health insurance at the onset of the illness or accident that ultimately landed them in bankruptcy. Sometimes it's hospital bills, but more often, it's about co-pay, deductibles, uncovered treatments, drugs, rehab, supplies, all the things that aren't covered by insurance. So part of the answer is that the financial impact of a serious medical problem goes beyond hospital bills. Lost jobs, drugs, physicians, rehab, health supplies. It's expensive to get sick in America today—too expensive for the average family.

    Tuesday, August 08, 2006

    Road Trip

    'Home Sweet Home' is a special series on my visit back home to India after 3 years, hoping to document not just macroscopic changes in the world's populous democracy, but my own emotions on being back. While originally intended to be posted as events occurred, I was too busy to go online while in India, and I'm now posting these after my return to the US.

    There are changes in India that become evident only when you take a road trip. For one, the choices of quality cars available is phenomenal, and several with good gas mileage to boot. Our choice was my brother's Tata Indica V2 , a homegrown 70 hp compact. While 70 horses seems a bit too few on American roads, Indians seem to do well on Indian roads with lower power. The Indica under real conditions gives about 10 kmpl (23 mpg) under real city conditions, even though under test conditions, it is rated at 14 kmpl (32mpg).

    The National Highways are far improved from my days in India, thanks to the phenomenal Golden Quadrilateral project and other big infrastructure investments under the previous government. The GQ is a system of interstates linking the four largest cities in India by top-notch freeways. As we discovered on our drive to Bangalore, much of the freeway is now a toll road, but the Rs 150 ($3.20) spent on using the tolled highway saved us plenty of travel time.

    Maybe it's a fiction of my imagination, but it does seem villages along the GQ are less impoverished than I remember. With rural centers now better connected to commercial hubs, I guess it's logical to expect the rural economy close to the distribution system is booming.

    We stop at Natrampalli, a village that was my dad's first posting back in 1969, and now a town of just under 10,000 people. Let that number not fool you - in India, where populations are measured in rather large units, a town of just under 10,000 people is still a town in the middle of nowhere. So we were indeed surprised to walk into the bank and see an air-conditioned office, filled with computers. We learn that they will be inaugrating the ATM later that week .... imagine that, an ATM in the middle of nowhere! The branch manager also tells us they are part of the centralized computer banking system, that allows these villagers to access an account located anywhere in India. What change!

    But lest we get too euphoric, a touch of reality. We go over to the Ramakrishna Mission premises. The Mission is an order of monks attempting to change the world, but unlike the wealthy religious groups of today, they still maintain an austerity, and still believe in a mission to improve spirituality, to make the Hindu a better Hindu, the Muslim a better Muslim, the Christian a better Christian. Our purpose though is not a religious one. We talk to the gentleman in charge of the Mission office, and he tells us of their efforts in education, with the percentage of children passing up from 8% to 30%. However, getting them to a level where they can go to college is a difficult task. The challenge is finding teachers willing to come for low pay to a remote village like Natrampalli.

    After much discussion, the gentleman, in a reference to the previous government's electoral slogan 'India Shining', says, 'India is Shining, but only in the cities and highways'. He points out that when you get away from the highway, there are still myriad problems requiring solution. I still am an optimist, and I leave hopeful that the new successes in the economy will allow tutors from cities to come down for 1-2 weekends a month to help these children.

    Thursday, July 27, 2006

    Jet Airways

    My brother insists my experience on Jet Airways was atypical, and the crowds that swell India's airports mean that even a labor-ready country like India has started to incentivize electronic check-in with free frequent-flyer miles and the like. Just how much has travel increased? In 1996, there was one flight a day between Chennai and Bangalore (two cities about a half-hour flight apart) and one train line, both operated at some loss by the federal government. Today, there are no less than 31 flights, 4-5 train lines, countless sleeper and nonsleeper buses, almost all by private operators, and yet it's virtually impossible to get a ticket on any of these modes of transport on short-notice.

    Even the flight attendants on my Jet Airways flight reflected a change from the India of past. They were attractive women dressed in skirts rather than the traditional garb of a sari, although at least one of them seemed not to appreciate her natural aesthetics, donning enough makeup to serve as an endorsement for a budding rouge maker.

    The meal ... yes, Indian air operators still offer more than peanuts ... was delicious, leaving me tempted to ask if I could buy another serving, and was served on china and with silverware - a welcome fact for a food-loving tree-hugger like myself.

    The Nation's Capitol

    'Home Sweet Home' is a special series on my visit back home to India after 3 years, hoping to document not just macroscopic changes in the world's populous democracy, but my own emotions on being back.

    There were claps all around. As the acceleration kicked in our solar plexus, we were all glad to be off the ground. It had been a long 4.5 hours, sitting on the tarmac at Newark International, as rains had prevented us from taking off. Especially rough when you are at the start of a 14-hour flight to Delhi. Some time earlier, we were told that if we didn't make it by 53 minutes past midnight, we would have to call the whole venture off. As the deadline loomed, many of us were praying hard ... a cancellation would have been disastrous for me, with another local flight to catch in India. The takeoff was hence all the more exhilarating! Later, I managed to have a great chat with the head steward of the flight, talking about procedures and donut holes - no, not the food, but the fact that pilots are required by federal law to retire at 60, but can't claim pension benefits till 65! Turns out if we had returned to the gate under inclement weather, federal law would have required a new crew, which could have delayed departure even further. Hmm, a reminder that sometimes things aren't as simple as they seem ... I wish one of those serial complainers ("why can't they just return to the gate and reboard when they are ready to leave") could have heard!

    I got into Delhi well past midnight, and was rather excited to catch up with an aunt of mine. She works for a large publishing company and represents an interesting generation of worker caught between a traditional and a new aggressive paradigm. The new model, inspired by the new breed of MBAs, seek short-term explosive growth, often at the expense of a core business of some heritage value, and a lot of social values. What is the purpose of a business, and what are its social commitments? This is an interesting question even in mature economies like the US, but especially in a nascent economy like India where you cannot depend on governments alone to address the problems that plague the country.

    The next morning, I headed to Delhi's domestic airport, only to be shocked by the plethora of airlines operating. When I left India for the US, a private competitor had just come on to take on the federally run monolith, Indian Airlines. Now several private players controlled the market, and the effect was obvious. I waited for checking-in less than 10 min (something even operators in the US can't manage) and boarding was a breeze. I waited to board in a hall more reminiscent of a Greyhound bus stop than a plush airport (although a lot cleaner and with none of the seedy characters that dominate the landscape of the bus terminus in the US). The waiting room of the airport is an interesting place to watch people, and I think I got some perspective on Indian life, but none more interesting than that from a kid!

    This kid was playing on the ground and periodically engaging strangers including yours truly. If this had been in the US, the mother would have freaked out and held on to the child tight, but here the mother actually seemed to be encouraging the child to interact more ("what's that uncle's name?" and other such nudges). As it turned out, the family sat next to me on my Jet Airways flight, and I pointed out my observation to them. The lady was surprised that any parent would not allow their child interaction with the public phase. We love it when he plays with strangers, she said, it means he's learning important social skills.

    The family themselves represented an interesting demographic. He ran an Eicher dealership selling tractors, trucks and buses. Business had been very good recently, thanks to a booming economy, and they said there was no place better to see it than Faridabad, a sprawling industrial town outside of Delhi. I had noted the flood of new cars in Delhi, but they tell me it's peanuts compared to what's happening in the small towns, where industrial small businesses (as opposed to service workers) are truly reaping the benefits, and more importantly, spending money like never before. The change in spending patterns is new, and while at least partly represents a desire for present comforts over defered gratification, in some degree represents a confidence that the present boom isn't a cyclical uptick.

    This has become a long post, what with the lack of time to write, and I have a speech to prepare, to give at a local school on environmental issues, so the blogging will have to wait till I'm a little more in control of that.

    Thursday, July 20, 2006

    Home Sweet Home

    I will be blogging a special series titled 'Home Sweet Home', about my current visit to my homeland, India after 3 years. While much of it is couched in nostalgia and may be trivial information unworthy of anyone's attention but my own, my intent is to log my own experiences as sentiments to be able to revisit to get a sense for the nature of change and staticism in this dynamic land.

    Sunday, July 16, 2006

    The Deficit Does Matter

    Mike Norman wrote an article for the Motley Fool website arguing that the trade deficit is not a bad thing. His reasoning was something like this: ordinary people run trade deficits, with your grocer, your barber and what have you, buying goods and services from them, and selling nothing to them, and that's a good thing. Ditto for the country!

    Ah, but Mike forgot one little detail: true, we do run deficits with most of our vendors, trading services for IOUs (and cash really is a tradeable IOU). But there is at least one vendor we run a large surplus with, your employer - you export services to your employer, and in return, your employer gives you a large IOU called a paycheck, which you then use to import from your vendors. As long as you export more than you import, you have an excess of IOUs that can be invested and you are increasing your net wealth. However, when you have more imports, you are living on credit (like millions of Americans do).

    Now, indebtedness is by itself not awful if two conditions are met: the cost of borrowing is cheap, and the credit is used for additional revenue-generating assets. The Chinese have made sure the first is true, but what about the second? Most of their investments have been in government securities, and it is questionable if our governments are investing them in revenue-enhancing activities. (Think of the difference between investing in a rental property versus a car)

    And as an individual, you do have to worry about the spigot turning off. That's why you pay your way out of even a mortgage. In the case of the US, the trade deficit keeps increasing. What happens when foreign borrowers are now longer satisfied with their risk-reward profile? After all, a credit card gives you money because that's how it makes money, but at some point, the returns on a risk-adjusted basis are no longer appealing, and the spigot of easy money is turned off. How will the US cope in this event?

    Wednesday, July 12, 2006

    Perspectives on Terror

    The world has seen two very different responses to acts of terror in recent days. While Israel sought to attack Lebanon to recover its kidnapped soldiers, India has thus far maintained a much less aggressive tack after the Mumbai blasts that killed 200, at last count. Till earlier this evening, I wished India would adopt Israel's aggression, striking militant camps in Pakistan rather than waiting for its neighbor to seek them out. Over dinner, watching the Newshour gave me another perspective.

    I would encourage you to listen to or read the comments of Hisham Melhem, the Washington bureau chief for the Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar, and host of a weekly program on the Arab satellite channel Al-Arabiya on the Newshour. He made a lot of sense about how retaliation pushes the moderates out of the political space. For example, in the Lebanon case, he argued that the Lebanese government is not in a position to do anything about Hezbollah, not because they don't want to, but because Hezbollah is militarily more powerful than the government itself. The Lebanese government then has to try to coax the militant group to lay down its arms, something the recent offensive makes a lot more difficult.

    Postscript Soon after I posted this, I read this column by Saisuresh Sivaswamy arguing for a aggressive response, just as the US had done in the days after 9/11.

    The US Aint No Unhappy Place!

    I love how some crazy organization will periodically perform a study on happiness, and eventually tell us how unhappy people in the US and other rich countries are. And news organizations will report it as the holy word, so that you and I can sit and either feel miserable about our affluence, or pleased with our lack of it. Well, hooey! MSNBC reported that Vanuatu was rated as the happiest place in the world while the US, Russia and the UK came in at 150, 172 and 108 off the 178 places in the world. The conclusion - happiness is not correlated with economic success.

    Now, I live the US, and I know it certainly couldn't be the happiest place in the world, but come on ... 150! Something fishy ... Turns out the (Un)Happy Planet Index is an "innovative measure" (quotes from website) of true happiness. Except that they rigged the index to make industrial nations do poorly. The HPI is defined as:

    HPI = Life satisfaction x Life expectancy/Ecological Footprint

    Look at that for a moment. Assume life satisfaction surveys indicate that about the twice the percentage of people in the US are satisfied with their lives, as compared to oh say Malawi (a random African nation), but the US consumes 10 times as much. To achieve the same HPI, the US would have to have life expectancies 5 times as high as the Malawians, which means the average Malawian would have to live to less than 20 years of age.

    Listen, I don't believe affluence alone brings happiness. I think there are far more important factors, including social structures and a rich faith tradition. But to create "innovative measures" to justify poverty the world over makes me sick (which is what most leftist groups try to do)! The reality is that the average farmer in each of those purportedly happier countries would gladly accept higher incomes, better healthcare, and not having to commit suicide because the monsoon failed!

    Tuesday, July 11, 2006

    Time for Action

    The recent blasts in Mumbai, India are a grim reminder that the barbarian threat of terror still looms large. In the days to come, there will be much print dedicted to individual horror stories, and much condemnation of the gruesome acts. None of this is new. And yet, if every country condemning the acts were sincere, we have to ask if groups such as LeT and JeM would exist. And what of that most-wanted Dawood Ibrahim, terrorist financier, sought by India for well over a decade and a half now? And it is time the Indian political class go beyond photo-ops after rushing to the scene of the terror, and put the weight of the nation's largest democracy and second-most populous nation to exert pressure on the countries that allow these thugs to exist (read Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and a handful of Gulf nations).

    The retarded Home minister, Shivraj Patil was on record as stating that an attack was expected, but no specifics were available as to location and timing. Why then were public places not put on high alert? Could it be that the pols were more busy with populism, be it quotas or bureaucratic battles, to bother about the issues that truly affect people?

    Customer Nonservice

    That's it - I'm officially sick and tired about the nincompoops who work at customer nonservice centers. My latest run-in was with a nitwit at Capital One. I applied for a credit card that promised me 0% APR on purchases and balance transfers, but when I activated, I was told I was getting 0% on purchases only. I tried to explain to the genius that that's not my offer stated, that I had my offer right in front of me, and yet he kept parroted like a broken record that the APR was for purchases only, and that I must be looking at the wrong offer (even after I pointed out that I had notated the offer for my records). After a tiring exchange that had me feel like I was talking to a wall, I asked for his supervisor, only to be put on hold for 15 minutes before I gave up and hung up!

    What the hell is wrong with companies these days? Why do they think they can treat us like worthless pieces of crap, and that we will put up with it. I for one would never use Capital One, unless my letter to the complaints department yields an apology and more. Shame on you, Capital One, for forgetting that old adage in business - customer is king!

    Thursday, July 06, 2006

    Quote of the Day

    Former House Speaker and architect of the GOP's Contract with America, Newt Gingrich on Democrats and their bloggers:
    This is a core problem [the Democrats] have. ... I don't think you can write a Contract with Vermont and San Francisco. ... Al Gore has refused to endorse his vice presidential running mate [Lieberman]. A party which is so driven by its left that—I don't know if you saw the blogger meeting in Las Vegas? From the standpoint of an average American, some of that stuff was weird. Candidates out there run a risk of resembling the people they're trying to appeal to. Normal people I think become distanced by that stuff. I think the Republican Party has few allies more effective than the Daily Kos. It puts them into an echo chamber of listening to each other. There was a reason [2004 Democratic presidential nominee John] Kerry looked normal—because Howard Dean looked so strange. So you have Dean as national chair, you have Gore coming back as a true left winger to Hillary's left, you have Lieberman unacceptably pro-national security, you have Nancy Pelosi from San Francisco... Let's drop Nancy Pelosi into a typical exurban swing district and see how she does. You listen to her talk and it's all about the counterculture, unilateral disarmament type of babble.

    Tuesday, July 04, 2006

    History Repeats Itself?

    You've been hearing it all the time recently - the rise of India and China, how the US is losing out to the competition, how the Asian Tigers are where all the action, and profits, are. Oh, and China is manipulating it's currency, and if we just impose anti-dumping tarrifs on Chinese imports, American manufacturing will be A-OK. Well, in line with my recent obsession to learn from history's lessons, I have been reading (ok, only a few pages at a time) Bill Emmott's historic book, 'The Sun Also Sets'. Why historic? Because writing at the height of the Japanese boom, he called for a collapse in the Japanese economy. OK, I haven't gotten to that part, but it amazes me how much alike the Japan story of those days is to India and China today - booming economies, increased consumer spending and the wealth effect, speculative asset bubbles in stocks and real estate ... Oh, and let's not forget Washington politicians accusing the Japanese of manipulating the yen rather than tackling America's self-made problem with trade deficits.

    To be sure, there are several differences between the Japan of past and India and China today, not least of which are size and demographics. Nevertheless, the next time you come across a story suggesting you learn Chinese, you may just want to pass.

    Sunday, July 02, 2006

    Alter on Flag Burning

    My brother sent me this wonderful piece by Jonathan Alter on the recent efforts by the Senate to pass a flag-burning amendment. I thought John Glenn put it best, as quoted by Alter:
    Those 10 amendments we call the Bill of Rights have never been changed or altered by one iota, not by one word, not a single time in all of American history. There was not a single change during any of our foreign wars, and not during recessions or depressions or panics. Not a single change when we were going through times of great emotion and anger like the Vietnam era, when flag after flag was burned or desecrated. There is only one way to weaken our nation. The way to weaken our nation would be to erode the freedom that we all share.”

    The Lankan Destroyers

    Wow, this is only my third-ever sports post. And this time it's on a sport only a small subset of my blog readers understand, let alone follow. But the Lankan destroyers merit attention ... a lot of it! If you haven't been following cricket recently, the Sri Lankan visitors (ranked #6) just massacred England (ranked #2) 5-0 in the recent one-day (ODI) series. The Lankans were far superior in all aspects, but what really caught my eye was the top 3 batsman for Lanka. Here's how they did:

    Game 1 2 3 4 5
    Tharanga 120 17 41 60 109
    Jayasuriya 11 122 23 14 152
    Jayawardane 24 66 126 100 12

    Between them, they had six 100's and two 50s - I don't think I've ever seen a similar domination by the top 3 of any side! Just for a contrast, compare the figures of England's top 3:

    Game 1 2 3 4 5
    Trescothick 67 9 36 44 121
    Strauss 12 18 32 39 41
    Bell 7 40 77 30 18

    That's one 100 and one 50 for you. Incredible! Beating England at home isn't easy ... making them look like a second-rate team no mean achievement.

    Free and Clear

    Money magazine has some great specials about individuals who paid off debt or saved and invested their way to wealth. One such story is that of Doug and Tina Koch who paid off $30,000 of debt acquired by the marriage ceremony within 11 months! It truly is revealing, and as Tina points out, if we could save even a fraction of that every month, we'll all be in good shape!

    Saturday, July 01, 2006

    Quote of the Day

    Syndicated columnist Mark Shields duscussing his reaction to the flag burning amendment, which failed in the US Senate, on the Newshour with Jim Lehrer:
    It made me angry, because I listened to those speeches. I listened to the people advocating it, and they talked about our fighting men and women. If they really were remotely authentic or sincere about our fighting men and women and honoring them, how about body armor? How about armoring Humvees? How about not cutting veterans' benefits? How about not putting our troops in a position where they're ordered to perform torturous acts? How about sending enough troops into battle? I mean, I just -- I mean, this was hypocrisy at its worst.

    Thursday, June 29, 2006

    Is This Guy for Real?

    Every now and then, I like to light up. Not often, but about once in a while or so, sometimes when I am super-stressed and haven't been able to make it to the gym, a cigarette really calms me down. A cigarette a month aint that bad, right? But the new Surgeon General begs to differ. I was shocked by just how toxic he suggested cigarette smoke, even second hand smoke, was, pointing to research that suggested cellular and arterial changes within seconds of exposure! You can watch his interview with Jim Lehrer here. I confess I find it a little hard to believe that exposure to such minor amounts of smoke can affect you if it's not on a consistent basis (I know I'm not a doctor, just a biased consumer!)

    Wednesday, June 28, 2006

    Protect Our Cyberspace

    I was very disappointed to read of that the director of the National Cyber Security Division of the Homeland Security Department just quit, because (according to the pervasive anonymous sources) of his frustrations with the lack of attention and money allotted to the issue. Looks like another case of poor functioning by Homeland Security. While no one is equating a physical terrorist attack with an electronic one, we should realize we live in a time where the latter could cripple our economy. Viruses written by high-school hackers manage to inflict millions of dollars of damage; the day may not be far when highly-sophisticated terrorist groups do just the same. But in Washington, the philosophy is to wait till it actually happens, so I don't expect any movement until the first major attack. Call it the Windows syndrome - don't fix security flaws until after they have been exploited by hackers!

    Talking of which, who is in charge of information security? Who takes care of the fact that everything from our social security numbers to our banking details and cell phone records are routinely stolen and sold on a thriving market. The fact that a news-aware person doesn't know this is a sign Washington hasn't made it a big issue. But to be fair, they had more pressing issues ... like casting symbolic votes on gay marriage, flag burning, troop withdrawal, even if they knew none of these measures would ever pass!

    Tuesday, June 27, 2006

    No Raise For You!

    The Democrats' move to block pay raises for Congress was a brilliant one politically. How can Congress argue that wage increases at the low end of the scale would affect business climate, and yet fatten their hourly allowances by $15, on average? And for what? To sit in Washington and debate stupid non-issues like flag burning? Tell me one solid bill that has actually passed recently from Washington? Zilch! Nada! If our democracy is about being hostage to electoral concerns every two years, then God save us all!

    About the hourly wage, I confess I don't like a fixed wage number. It will lead to retrenchment of low-skilled work, as automation and reallocation will ensure the total cost to business is unchanged. Some Republicans did propose an alternative, linked to tax initiatives, but they never showed any leadership on the issue. This is like Kyoto, where the Bush administration pulled out unilaterally (it did have some valid reasons) but failed to show leadership towards an alternative. But that is a topic for another day!

    Sunday, June 25, 2006

    Give It Away!

    The world of philanthropy just have a second tremor - days after the world's richest man, Bill Gates announced that he would be taking up philanthropy full-time, the second-richest man, Warren Buffet announced he would be giving away his share of Berkshire stock to charities (especially the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) starting now. In doing so, he has reversed a long-standing disagreement with his now-late wife Susan, arguing that it was best for him to allow his money to compound at a high rate before giving to charity posthumously. I hope this is a start of more private giving to eliminate the ills that plague our world.

    Interestingly both Gates and Buffet talk about how giving money is not only for others, it's actually also for the benefit of their kids. Here's Buffet in the Fortune article:
    I still believe in the philosophy ... that a very rich person should leave his kids enough to do anything but not enough to do nothing.

    May this be a phenomenon restricted to the super-wealthy, or will their example stir more of us to give to the needy around the world, rather than focusing on a consumption-driven lifestyle?

    Monday, June 19, 2006

    New AHA Guidelines

    The American Heart Association issued new guidelines on trans fat, as well as many other recommendations. They recommend trans fats constitute less than 1% of the total calories consumed. The story has more of their recommendations, but I have reproduced some of them below with additional information from other sources:

  • Limiting trans fat: these are formed by combining liquid vegetable oil with hydrogen (hence partially hydrogenated oils) to form a solid. The problem? The solid oils clog up your arteries. (source)
  • Limiting saturated fats to no more than 7 percent of daily calories, down from the 10 percent formerly recommended and the 11 percent most Americans consume. The body in a strategy evolved from centuries of food scarcity stores saturated fat in your belly when the need should arise. Problem is, unless you plan to participate in some twisted new reality show, that need will probably arise, and instead the excess ab fat can kill you! (source) For more information on how fat works in the body, read this".
  • A half-hour of exercise a day. I can evangelize about this, having been a frequent victim to illness, until a daily exercize program has added a spring in my step. The founder of my university and a co-founder to the idea of America, Thomas Jefferson exhorted his students to spend two hours a day on the body to exercise the mind.
  • Adding little or no salt to food. Blood pressure causes an estimated two-thirds of all strokes in America, and about half of all heart attacks around the world. About 60 million Americans suffer from high BP. Most agencies studying the issue have recommended a maximum consumption of between 1100-2300 mg of sodium - the average American consumes 4,000 mg! (source)
  • Saturday, June 17, 2006

    Does the Convention Hold?

    Ok, I'm officially sick of hearing people criticize the Bush administration for not upholding the Geneva conventions. Let's pause from partisan rheoteric for a second and ask what the basis of the Geneva conventions is. Nearly 200 countries around the world agreed to abide by certain norms for treating prisoners beonging to other signatories. If you missed that, the key phrase is "other signatories". No terrorist group has ever signed the Geneva convention, and most of their activities involve targeting of innocent civilians and torture that goes against the spirit and letter of the convention. Finding fault with the US for not abiding by the Geneva convention is like criticizing a state for failing to keep up a ceasefire agreement the enemy didn't sign!

    Thursday, June 15, 2006

    Who's Fixing the Price Of Oil?

    Nowadays, it's hard for a day to go by without someone commenting on who's behind the high gas prices - price gouging by the gas stations (never mind they actually make less money when prices are high), the Saudis and OPEC, Big Oil, George Bush (who evidently is behind everything bad in the world for some people!), China and India consuming too much ... the list is endless. Well, blogger Dimitris Hatzopoulos in Greece argues that in reality, prices are set in a derivatives market that has nothing to do with the physical reality of oil production. He cites numerous examples to support his thesis that trade in "paper barrels", i.e. oil futures, determines the price of "wet barrels", real oil, while still being disconnected from true supply-demand considerations. Do read the link titled 'Oil Markets and Prices' for a better understanding of the subject.

    Wednesday, June 14, 2006

    The Bubble Will Pop ...

    It's now common consensus that the housing markets will correct, although still no consensus on if it will be gentle (stagnation in prices) or harsh (you see horror stories in the newspaper) I tend to be a believer that the scenario will be closer to the latter than the former. I wrote way back in September 2005 that the historical record suggests housing markets do correct harshly, with three giant nation-wide bear markets since 1967. Now, an article by Paul Lim in USNews argues along similar lines, and once again points to the historical record.
    The bottom line: Real estate prices eventually correct themselves. And unfortunately for homeowners, it often takes years before home prices start to rise again, especially after a big run up. National City recently studied 66 major metro regions over the past 21 years that suffered through a 10 percent or greater decline in prices for at least a two-year period of time. It found that home prices, once they begin to correct, tend to decline 17 percent on average before markets heal themselves. "And the average duration of these adjustments is 3.5 years," says DeKaser [chief economist at National City].

    And remember, your losses are exaggerated by the leverage you used (using Other People's Money works both ways!), so true losses are probably several times that percentage.

    As I pointed out in my piece back in September, time is your friend, so if you intend to stay put for 5-10 years, the odds are in your favor, but if you're a 20-something year-old flipper, God be with you, 'cos you're gonna need Him.

    The Motorcycle Diaries

    This last weekend, I saw the wonderful movie, The Motorcycle Diaries, a dramatization by Che Guevara of the roadtrip that changed his life. While I don't agree with all that Che did in his life, the movie is very moving, and gives pause even to a rabid capitalist like me. It helps to put in perspective the significance of electoral wins by Evo Morales, the indigenous cocoa-grower who won the presidency of Bolivia. Don't get me wrong - I think am a strong believer in free markets ... I have seen even modest reforms alleviate poverty in India, a poverty sustained by a bureaucracy for half a decase. In fact, governments in some cases can be far more ruthless than any corporation.

    Anyway, this thoughtstream has just motivated me to add yet another book to my "wishlist" of books I intend to read in the next few weeks/months - Hernando De Soto's The Mystery of Capital. I had heard de Soto a long time back being interviewed by Bill Moyers, and found myself riveted.

    Saturday, June 10, 2006

    Quote of the Day

    I read this in a column on investing, dealing with panic of the lay investor due to losses in the stock markets, but this quote by the Frenchman Joseph Joubert ring true for so many aspects of life:
    When you go in search of honey you must expect to be stung by bees.

    Vote Hyundai for Quality?

    This is huge ... the latest survey by J.D.Power & Associates rated Hyundai as #3 in initial quality, ahead of Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Mitsubishi and all those other brands you may think are better. Only a Porsche and Lexus ranked better. The Hyundai Tucson got the top rating for compact SUV or crossover. As someone who recently suggested a friend avoid a Hyundai, I was left feeling very stupid. A sign that conventional wisdom isn't so wise after all ...

    AfterthoughtLooking at the 2005 Vehicle Dependibility Study, the Hyundai performed very poorly, while (surprise surprise!) Honda and Toyota ruled the non-luxury segment! Maybe conventional wisdom aint so bad after all ...

    Thursday, June 08, 2006

    Killers Be Damned

    It is indeed a joyous occasion when a mass murder becomes the victim of his own game. Today, when US forces ended the life of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the murders of thousands of innocent Iraqi citizens was avenged. Just how significant is this?
    Over the last several years, no single person on this planet has had the blood of more innocent men, women and children on his hands than Zarqawi. He personified the dark, sadistic and medieval vision of the future, of beheadings, suicide bombings, and indiscriminate killings, a behavior pattern that has been rejected by the overwhelming majority of the Iraqi people, whether Sunni, Shias or Kurds, and certainly by the overwhelming majority of Muslims worldwide.

    - Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld

    Monday, June 05, 2006

    Garbage on Groceries

    I am a regular reader of Forbes magazine, but of their stock opinions. I don't expect to embrace healthy living or societal choices from reading this magazine. So when MSNBC reproduced this piece of junk, titled Healthier eating would raise grocery bills, I threw a fit! Gosh, did they get someone from the National Council of Chain Restaurants to write this crap? The article argues that healthier choices would spike up grocery bills, and disses Eric Schlosser's (author of Fast Food Nation) call to migrate to less processed foods. The author of this piece grudgingly acknowledges Schlosser's observation that the premium is small compared to the medical savings from avoiding Big Macs.

    But how can someone writing about a financial magazine be so blind to economies of scale. Here's one observation about organic food:
    Unfortunately, organic food is typically more expensive than industrialized food, usually costing 25 percent to 100 percent as much. That may explain why Whole Foods Market, which has capitalized on the public's interest in more natural foods, has been nicknamed "Whole Paycheck" for its high prices. An example: Last week in downtown Chicago, a dozen large regular eggs cost $1.79, while a dozen large organic, cage-free eggs sold for $3.39.

    Yes, but as more people embrace organic food, costs come down. Whole Foods Market sells the cheapest organic tofu in town, cheaper than the non-organic tofu at Kroger or other giant retail stores. How? As a WFM sales assistant told me, once they have enough scale, prices come tumbling down. Most of the prices aren't production-related, they are distribution costs.

    That's not to say organic food's gonna be cheaper anytime soon. It's to say I look forward to the day a tightwad like me can buy organic food. And with WalMart getting into the business, that day may not be too far away!

    Saturday, June 03, 2006

    Book of the Day

    My pick for Book of the Day is Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the America Dream - Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Jeff Speck. The authors are architects who designed several sensible communities, and argue persuasively that the current design of suburbia is fundamentally flawed, and seek to take us back (and forward) to the days when communities were not zoned residential and commerical, where pedestrian-friendly designs meant you didn't drive to the store, where traffic jams are nonexistant because of the dispersion of the road network (where all traffic doesn't feed into a collector), accident rates are significantly lower, and most important, where residents can feel a sense of community, where rich and poor live in the same neighborhood. The book drives these points home with several photographs of communities good and bad, and had it not been the pangs of hunger, I may never have put the book down.

    Thursday, June 01, 2006

    Lip Service

    There are days when I feel excited about the prospect of the world's only superpower supporting free regimes all over the world. And then there are days when reality bites me in the ass. This is one of the latter days. Recently, that saint of democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi had her detention extended by the military junta in Myanmar. Suu Kyi has been under house arrest since 1990, after winning by a landslide a general election. And yet, the military has had no trouble detaining her for the last 16 years, ruling Myanmar with an iron fist.

    Are we truly serious about freedom? Yes, the US and Europe, as also many other countries, protest every extension, and have a representative to "conduct talks with" with the junta. And yet, precious little has come up. Surely the powers of the world can do better if they cared!

    Shame Shame Shame!

    Monday, May 29, 2006

    Radio Nuggets

    I took a little road trip yesterday, and when you spend 5 hours on the road and listen to as much talk radio (no heavens, not Rush Limbaugh!) as I do, you learn a lot of interesting information. Here are some snippets of things I remember:

  • According to Dr Kathleen Hall, founder and President of the Stress Institute, studies have showed that stress levels are sometimes higher in people stuck in traffic than fighter pilots in combat!
  • I heard an interview with James Loewen, author of Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong. The interview was by a local (northern VA) station, and focused mostly on the inaccuracies in several monuments in Virginia and DC, but was fascinating. I intend to add this book to my "wishlist" reading list of books I intend to read in the near future.
  • Good suggestions for interviewing and looking for jobs (which I'm not doing in the near future!) from Ford Myers of Career Potential, including trap questions to skip over and negotiating.

    Well, those were all I could remember for now. Hope the websites will provide you with good information.
  • Saturday, May 27, 2006

    Nutritional Biohazards

    One of the websites I visit every day is Men's Health. Yes, it's filled with advice I would never follow, often of a morally questionable nature or that requires you to spend such an incredible amount of time grooming yourself that you might as well be gay! But it's fitness and nutritional information is top-notch, and a daily visit gives me several new ideas to live my life.

    Here's one y'all (men and otherwise) could use - four nutritional biohazards. They are:

  • High Fructose Corn Syrup
  • Trans Fats
  • Saturated Fats
  • Refined Carbs

  • Do be aware of some caveats, of course. For example, peanut butter is rich in saturated fats, but the good kind (rich in omega-3). But even in peanut butter, there is considerable nutritional variety between brands, and the generic brands are sometimes better. My preferred brand is Kroger, which does not have the crappy partially hydrogenated oils that Jif and some other brands have.

    So live healthy and enjoy your life!