The President Changes Course

Though I may be stepping on The Contrarian’s turf here, I feel obligated to note that, over the past week, events suggest that the President has actually listened to some criticism and made an effort to change course. Since pundits and politicians of all stripes always tell the president that he “ought to come clean with the American people,” we should recognize that he’s sort of doing that:

  • He is sending more troops to Iraq’s troubled Al Anbar province, something some critics have been advocating for years.
  • He admitted that “bring ‘em on,” “dead or alive,” and Abu Ghraib were mistakes and he regretted them.
  • His Secretary of State, Condi Rice, announced that, for the first time, the U.S. is willing to engage in talks with Iran for the first time in 30 years (see Kevin Drum for important caveats here).
  • He’s nominated a serious, respected candidate for Treasury Secretary, when all the pundits (including myself) were convinced that he’d hire a patsy with no real ability to make policy. Of course, actually changing course here is going to require some tough choices and tax hikes — two things that Republicans generally avoid.

Are these all for show? Possibly. Maybe nothing will come of them. But if we’re going to beat on the guy for not listening, we’ve got to acknowledge the opposite. After all, a little flip-flop now and then is a healthy thing, I think.

Son, Everything You Know Is Wrong

I guess I don’t feel bad for missing out on last month’s Dining for Darfur night now that some are arguing that perversely, we may be making matters worse:

Darfur was never the simplistic morality tale purveyed by the news media and humanitarian organizations. The region’s blacks, painted as long-suffering victims, actually were the oppressors less than two decades ago — denying Arab nomads access to grazing areas essential to their survival. Violence was initiated not by Arab militias but by the black rebels who in 2003 attacked police and military installations. The most extreme Islamists are not in the government but in a faction of the rebels sponsored by former Deputy Prime Minister Hassan al-Turabi, after he was expelled from the regime. Cease-fires often have been violated first by the rebels, not the government, which has pledged repeatedly to admit international peacekeepers if the rebels halt their attacks.

. . .

Advocates of intervention play down rebel responsibility because it is easier to build support for stopping genocide than for becoming entangled in yet another messy civil war. But their persistent calls for intervention have actually worsened the violence.

The rebels, much weaker than the government, would logically have sued for peace long ago. Because of the Save Darfur movement, however, the rebels believe that the longer they provoke genocidal retaliation, the more the West will pressure Sudan to hand them control of the region. Sadly, this message was reinforced when the rebels’ initial rejection of peace last month was rewarded by American officials’ extracting further concessions from Khartoum.

For some reason, I don’t think Nicholas Kristof will agree . . . especially with this:

Rather, we should let Sudan’s army handle any recalcitrant rebels, on condition that it eschew war crimes. This option will be distasteful to many, but Sudan has signed a peace treaty, so it deserves the right to defend its sovereignty against rebels who refuse to, so long as it observes the treaty and the laws of war.

Just as long as you avoid war crimes . . . but then again, this is coming from a guy who had the balls to contrary* conventional wisdom on Rwanda — years after the fact!

*That’s a verb now, just so we’re clear.

6/1 Update — Kristof responds:

The author of today’s op-ed claims that it would be better if Westerners didn’t demand military intervention, because that just bolsters the rebels. That is absurd. First, far and away the biggest problem in Darfur is the Sudanese government — both its attacks on villages and its refusal to allow aid workers into remote areas. And there’s plenty of history to show that the only time Sudan bends is when it’s under great pressure.

After all, Darfur is in many ways a replay of a movie we saw in southern Sudan. First, Khartoum mobilized irregular militias to wipe out villages and kill civilians. And then it supported a proxy rebel movement to invade a neighboring country (then Uganda, now Chad). In the absence of demands for intervention, that war in the south went on for 20 years. In part because of the possibility of a UN security force, Sudan agreed to this tentative peace settlement in Darfur after only a few years. Otherwise, Darfur would have lingered for 20 years — and then Sudan would have started all over again in its east, on the border with Eritrea.

You can see a pattern: Whenever the international community focuses attention on Darfur, the slaughter subsides a bit. Then the world gets distracted, and Sudan steps up the killing. Besides, what about Chad? The discussion usually focuses only on Darfur, but there is a real risk that the entire nation of Chad will collapse into chaos, provoking a new civil war that will duplicate Darfur but on a much larger scale.

The bottom line is that genocide is the worst thing that humans can do to each other. It tears at the fabric of humanity. And the only way that we here, in the US, can assert our own humanity is to stand up to genocide, even a distant one. To look the other way as babies are tossed onto bonfires, because of their skin color and tribe, is an abdication of our own citizenship in our species.

Sustainable Investing

Over the years we’ve argued that long-term investing could yield more “progressive” outcomes. That is, if you’re only concerned with quarterly profits, you have little incentive to think about the environmental effects of your business. But if you’re looking at being profitable 30 or 40 years down the road, then you have every interest in making sure that there are still natural resources (water, forests, oil) around that you can make use of.

The Professor even went so far as to tentatively argue in favor of repealing the estate tax, on the grounds that business owners might care more about the environment if they could easily pass their business on to the next generation.

Anyway, all of this is to say that it feels pretty good to hear Al Gore making the same argument in a Seattle Weekly interview:

For example, 30 years ago the average holding period for stocks in the U.S. was seven years. Now, the average mutual fund turns over its entire portfolio every 11 months. So Corporate Finance 101 says that 80 percent of the value of a typical company builds up over a business cycle or a business cycle and a half, five to seven years or so. If you as an investor are getting in and out of that stock in a few months, technically that’s not investing, that’s speculating. They have the fancy label, “momentum investing,” which means that they’re trying to outguess the other momentum investors, the other speculators. They try to get an advantage with superior information, but what they’re not doing is actually investing in the fundamental value of the company. And the short term–ism that is often decried in the form of CEOs managing the quarterly reports is even worse in the investment world, because a CEO that wants to break out of the quarterly report insanity will automatically feel pressure from institutional investors who compensate their managers on a three-month basis, or even a yearly basis, asking them, “What are you doing? You’re hurting our rate of return.”

So I’m part of a movement to try to encourage a longer time horizon for investing and, even more importantly, the integration of sustainability values, including the environment, as part of the mainstream investment process. Look at Costco here in the state of Washington. For years they were seen as a poor second to Wal-Mart. And yet, Costco’s unionized, they pay their employees a lot more. You look more carefully at it, and they have much more longevity, much less turnover, much lower retraining costs, much higher employee productivity. They don’t have the lawsuits facing them that Wal-Mart has because they’re respectful of the communities where they do business.

So if you look quarter to quarter, Wal-Mart’s going to look better, but if you look over three or four or five or seven years, Costco’s your bet. Now Wal-Mart, ironically, is under pressure to change its ways, because [its old practices are] catching up with it, and they’re actually trying to behave more responsibly now. Whether it’s greenwashing or whether it’s real remains to be seen.

Exactly. It’s a great interview, and you should read it all. Not because he’s going to run for President (he’s probably not), but because he’s hella smart and unencumbered by inane politician talking points. Good stuff.

Last Throes + 1

The Carpetbagger reminds us that it’s been one year since Dick Cheney’s famous remark that we’re “in the last throes, if you will, of the insurgency.”

Of course, Cheney’s basically right. The word “insurgency” implies that there’s a single, monolithic power against which one could “insurge.” With U.S. troops increasingly stationed behind large walls and no one group really in charge of anything, there can no longer be a true insurgency. Just plain, old-fashioned anarchy.

Fix This And We Might Fix Society

Village Voice writer Anya Kamenetz tackles what I’ve long thought has been a much-overlooked issue — how unpaid internships exacerbate societal inequities:

The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not identify interns or track the economic impact of unpaid internships. But we can do a quick-and-dirty calculation: according to Princeton Review’s “Internship Bible,” there were 100,000 internship positions in 2005. Let’s assume that out of those, 50,000 unpaid interns are employed full time for 12 weeks each summer at an average minimum wage of $5.15 an hour. That’s a nearly $124 million yearly contribution to the welfare of corporate America.

In this way, unpaid interns are like illegal immigrants. They create an oversupply of people willing to work for low wages, or in the case of interns, literally nothing. Moreover, a recent survey by Britain’s National Union of Journalists found that an influx of unpaid graduates kept wages down and patched up the gaps left by job cuts.

There may be more subtle effects as well. In an information economy, productivity is based on the best people finding the jobs best suited for their talents, and interns interfere with this cultural capitalism. They fly in the face of meritocracy — you must be rich enough to work without pay to get your foot in the door. And they enhance the power of social connections over ability to match people with desirable careers. A 2004 study of business graduates at a large mid-Atlantic university found that the completion of an internship helped people find jobs faster but didn’t increase their confidence that those jobs were a good fit.

These internships — often in big industries in competitive cities — are in some ways worse than the Ivy League snobbery in the way they reinforce class in our supposedly classless, meritocratic society. Definitely part of the problem.

Ben and Jerry’s Sucks Now

It’s Memorial Day weekend, so I ran to my local QFC to buy my annual pint of ice cream.

I instinctively picked up the Ben and Jerry’s off the shelf — cookie dough, of course. At a hefty $0.70 premium (20%!) over the next closest “superpremium” brand (Haagen Daaz), you know it’s got to be made of finest quality, all natural ingredients, right?

Thankfully I actually checked the label.

Ah, Ben? Jerry? How can you let your reputation be sullied by crap like guar gum and carrageenan? Seriously folks, it’s all over for the boys from Vermont. They’re cashing in on their reputation now to charge a premium price for an inferior product.

Stick with the Haagen Daaz — just good ol’ fashioned cream, sugar, and eggs. Delish!

Episode 247

Some thoughts on how LOST and other TV shows are changing internet marketing, the latest fight between Congress and the FBI, and some disturbing new news out of Iraq: what does it mean for continuing the struggle?

Greeks

I was putzing around with my new, fancy “On Demand” service from Comcast (had to sign up to get Sopranos!), and I decided to “demand” the film Troy last night. Thankfully, Comcast acquiesced to my demands quickly in what was a surprisingly one-sided negotiation.

Troy is kinda schlocky, but it’s just the kind of popcorn-history big budget epic that I was in the mood for. Anyway, I think Wolfgang Peterson is a pretty good director for this kind of stuff, so I gave it a whirl. They take a lot of liberty with the story (the idea to build the Trojan horse comes like 10 years — not 10 days — after the Greeks land at Troy, for example). I suppose that’s to be expected, but two things struck me in that regard.

First, they took out all the Gods. In the legend, most of the characters are children of Gods or half-children of Gods, and so the Gods intervene at various times and perform magic and sweep people away just before they’re about to die, etc. But all of this was scrubbed out. It was an oddly secular affair. People just killed each other instead.

I think that says something about our culture, that we’re unwilling to accept a “deus ex machina” in the very literal sense of the phrase these days. I had a conversation with a friend several years ago after Star Wars: Episode I came out. There’s a scene where Qui-Gonn (sp?) takes a reading of young Anakin’s blood and determines that he’s going to be a Jedi because his something-or-other (mitochlorions?) are off the charts. My friend posited that Lucas felt compelled to add this bit because these days we need a scientific explanation for everything. Can’t just be magic.

Second, they took out all the money! In the legend, the characters have pretty basic, greedy motives. For example, Paris steals two kinds of booty from Menelaeus: his woman, Helen, and his treasure. But in the film the latter booty is removed to make the whole thing more romantic, I guess. Similarly, King Priam buys his dead son’s body back from Achilles, but in the film, he just delivers a moving speech about fatherhood and Achilles releases the corpse.

These two observations are probably related, of course. Perhaps in our culture, the nobility of not doing something for money is deemed to be God-like behavior, and therefore the Gods are redundant. Or maybe love is such an exalted thing that it needs to be kept from the corrupting power of money. Either way, it’s interesting to note the different value sets between present-day America and Ancient Greece.

PS: They killed Agamemnon in Troy! You can’t kill off Agamemnon! He has to return home and get killed by his wife in retribution for the killing of their daughter which then causes their son to kill their mother and, and, and… well, let’s just say that if Agamemnon had died in Troy, a lot of stuff would be different today.

I Swear, I Had No Idea That Would Happen!

Now that Abbas appears to be forcing Hamas’ hand in staking out a “middle ground,” do we really believe that Israel and the U.S. had “no idea” that Hamas was going to win the parliamentary elections? Recent events make that difficult to believe:

The president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, said Thursday that he would call a referendum on a proposal for a Palestinian state that would recognize Israel, if the governing Hamas party failed to accept the plan within 10 days.

In laying down his challenge, Mr. Abbas seems to be gambling that he can force his Fatah party, Hamas and some smaller factions to agree on a broad framework for dealing with Israel, which Hamas now refuses to recognize. But he runs the risk of provoking a political showdown at a moment when the Palestinians are already plagued by infighting and a worsening financial crisis.

“We differ, it is true,” Mr. Abbas said in Ramallah at a conference intended to put an end to internal Palestinian quarreling. “We see things differently, but we need to find middle-of-the-road solutions.”

. . .

Like the Palestinians, Israel appeared caught off guard by Mr. Abbas’s announcement and had little to say about it. Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry, described it as an internal Palestinian matter.

In the past Israel has strongly rejected two of the plan’s provisions: returning to pre-1967 borders and giving Palestinian refugees the right to return to lands they left in 1948.

The proposal, based on a plan drafted earlier this month by prominent Palestinian prisoners from Hamas and Fatah, calls for a Palestinian state and a negotiated peace settlement with Israel, if it withdraws to the borders that existed before the Arab-Israeli war of 1967. The Palestinian state would include all of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, with its capital in East Jerusalem.

Marwan Barghouti, a leading Fatah figure serving five life terms in Israel’s Hadarim Prison, is credited as the driving force behind the prisoners’ document, though imprisoned members of Hamas also endorsed it.

“We must rise to the level of responsibility,” said Mr. Abbas, whose Fatah movement has supported plans along those lines for years. “If within 10 days you don’t reach results through dialogue, I will take the prisoners’ document to a popular referendum” within 40 days.

Some backstory, in case you forgot.