Saturday, January 06, 2007
kfccinema forum thread
Good tear-jerker, with outstanding performances by Lee Na Young and Kang Dong Wan (not so much of a pretty boy in this one). Kang Dong Wan is Jang Yoon-soo, a man on death row; Lee Na Young is Moon Yoo-jung, a troubled woman who has attempted suicide three times. Two wounded souls reaching out to one another.
The movie is also informative in so far as it shows what life in a Korean prison is like, as well as how capital punishment is carried out? There is a strong Christian presence in the movie. As far as I can tell, the movie does not give a position regarding capital punishment. I haven't seen Dead Man Walking, so I can't compare the two, though I probably would prefer Sister Monica in Maundy Thursday to both the real Sr. Helen Prejean and to Susan Sarandon's portrayal. The only minor theological quibble I would have would be the movie's understanding of forgiveness, but since I'm still unsure about what Sacred Tradition teaches about forgiveness and the conditions under which it should be extended, I'll be cautious. Otherwise, the movie is strong on the love of God for sinners, the hope we should have in Christ as our Redeemer, the mercy we should show to others, and the healing we find through love.
A quibble with the plot (possible plot spoiler)
* Yoon-soo is baptized in the movie; before he is executed he sings the national anthem, because it is what his little brother used to sing in order to gain encouragement and strength. Although the movie is Christian, I was a it surprised that he doesn't do a bit more praying in the movie, though perhaps he still feels unworthy to address God directly, and is relying on the prayer of others.*
The deleted scenes on the dvd are worth watching as well, as some extra details of Yoon-soo's childhood are given, and a small measure of justice is attained with respect to the cause of Yoo-jung's pain.
I was looking through the yelp reviews of Dynasty, Joy Luck, and Hong Kong Saigon, and some people recommended Koi Palace in Daly City and Fook Yuen in Millbrae. Have you heard of these places? I might go to Joy Luck or Dynasty with mom Sat. morning...
The An Family website; they own Thanh Long and Crustacean. Both of these places are known for their special sauces; too bad I don't care much for crab, except in CA rolls at Miyake. What was that other restaurant, the one with dungeness crab in the name?
Friday, January 05, 2007
The Straus Military Reform Project is sponsoring a briefing next week on a new publication just now being released.
Major Donald E. Vandergriff (US Army Retired) is the author of over 50 articles and two books on military personnel and leadership. His newest work is Raising the Bar: Creating and Nurturing Adaptability to Deal with the Changing Face of War. He addresses fundamental reasons why America’s military leadership has failed to adapt quickly and effectively to unfolding events in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he describes what actions are needed to produce an officer corps that can cope effectively with the form of warfare we face today (“4th Generation Warfare”).
Vandergriff will summarize his work in a 20 minute on-the-record briefing. I hope you can attend. Please let me know if you plan to.
When: Thursday, January 11 at 10:00 AM
Where: The Carnegie Building, 1779 Massachusetts Ave., NW (2 blocks from the DuPont Circle [south] Metro stop) in the Choate Room on the first floor.
Copies of Vandergriff’s new publication, “Raising the Bar,” will be provided at attending the briefing.
I wish I could attend. Or perhaps Sarge could go, even though he doesn't want to be a commissioned officer. But he will be in Richmond. Are you going to St. Joseph's? You should drop by and try to meet up with the Dorans. Seriously. I can even get their contact info from Br. Boniface if you would like.
January 3, 2007 7:00 AM
The Story of a Well-Lived Life
Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, R.I.P.
By Robert P. George
Elizabeth Fox-Genovese was a scholar as notable for her bravery as for her brilliance. After what she described as her “long apprenticeship” in the world of secular liberal intellectuals, it was careful reflection on the central moral questions of our time that led her first to doubt and then to abandon both liberalism and secularism. Needless to say, this did not endear her to her former allies.
At the heart of her doubts about secular liberalism (and what she described as “radical, upscale feminism”) was its embrace of abortion and its (continuing) dalliance with euthanasia. At first, she went along with abortion, albeit reluctantly, believing that women’s rights to develop their talents and control their destinies required its legal permission availability. But Betsey (as she was known by her friends) was not one who could avert her eyes from inconvenient facts. The central fact about abortion is that it is the deliberate killing of a developing child in the womb. For Betsey, euphemisms such as “products of conception,” “termination of pregnancy,” “privacy,” and “choice” ultimately could not hide that fact. She came to see that to countenance abortion is not to respect women’s “privacy” or liberty; it is to suppose that some people have the right to decide whether others will live or die. In a statement that she knew would enflame many on the Left and even cost her valued friendships, she declared that “no amount of past oppression can justify women’s oppression of the most vulnerable among us.”
Betsey knew that public pro-life advocacy would be regarded by many in the intellectual establishment as intolerable apostasy — especially from one of the founding mothers of “women’s studies.” She could have been forgiven for keeping mum on the issue and carrying on with her professional work on the history of the American south. But keeping mum about fundamental matters of right and wrong was not in her character. And though she valued her standing in the intellectual world, she cared for truth and justice more. And so she spoke out ever more passionately in defense of the unborn.
And the more she thought and wrote about abortion and other life issues, the more persuaded she became that the entire secular liberal project was misguided. Secular liberals were not deviating from their principles in endorsing killing whether by abortion or euthanasia in the name of individual “choice”; they were following them to their logical conclusions. But this revealed a profound contradiction at the heart of secular liberal ideology, for the right of some individuals to kill others undermines any ground of principle on which an idea of individual rights or dignity could be founded.
Even in her early life as a secular liberal, she was never among those who disdained religious believers or held them in contempt. As an historian and social critic, she admired the cultural and moral achievements of Judaism and Christianity. As her doubts about secularism grew, she began to consider seriously whether religious claims might actually be true. Reason led her to the door of faith, and prayer enabled her to walk through it. As she herself described her conversion from secularism to Catholicism, it had a large intellectual component; yet it was, in the end, less her choice than God’s grace.
Betsey continued her scholarly labors, especially in collaboration with her husband Eugene Genovese, our nation’s most distinguished historian of American slavery. Not long ago, Cambridge University Press published their masterwork, The Mind of the Master Class. Soon after Betsey’s own religious conversion, Gene (who had long been an avowed Marxist, but who had gradually moved in the direction of cultural and political conservatism) returned to the Catholic faith of his boyhood under the influence of his beloved wife.
As if she had not already antagonized the intellectual establishment enough, Betsey soon began speaking out in defense of marriage and sexual morality. Her root-and-branch rejection of the ideology of the sexual revolution — an ideology that now enjoys the status of infallible dogma among many secular liberal intellectuals — was based on a profound appreciation of the centrality of marriage to the fulfillment of men and women as sexually complementary spouses; to the well-being of children for whom the love of mother and father for each other and for them is literally indispensable; and to society as a whole which depends on the marriage-based family for the rearing of responsible and upright citizens. If her pro-life advocacy angered many liberal intellectuals, her outspoken defense of marriage and traditional norms of sexual morality made them apoplectic.
Betsey’s marriage to Gene was one of the great love stories of our time. They were two very different personalities, perfectly united. He was the head of the family; she was in charge of everything. Their affection for each other created a kind of force field into which friends were drawn in love for both of them. Although unable to have children of their own, they lavished parental care and concern on their students and younger colleagues, who in turn worshipped them.
Betsey leaves us many fine works of historical scholarship and social criticism — works admired by honest scholars across the political spectrum. Even more importantly, her life provides an unsurpassed example of intellectual integrity and moral courage. Her fervent witness to the sanctity of human life and the dignity of marriage and the family will continue to inspire. May the living God who drew her to Himself comfort her bereaved husband and grant her a full share in His divine life.
— Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University.
Last Sunday, when I returned to Arizona, I took SamTrans (bus) to Stanford Shopping Center, because my mom and I decided not to impose on anyone by asking them to pick us up at the airport. Travelling on SamTrans reminded me of why I dislike the Bay Area. I used to take SamTrans from time to time, in order to go to San Francisco--Union Square, Virgin Megastore, Japantown, Chinatown, etc. [MUNI in SF provides rather convenient bus service; one doesn't really need a car if one lives in the city and is willing to do most of one's activities there.]
Travelling down El Camino Royal, one sees an economy that is mostly service-based -- very little production being done, very little food being grown locally. Lots of people commuting, and their towns and cities developing, either deliberately or 'naturally' in accordance with a car-centered lifestyle. The downtown life has been destroyed for the most part by the automobile, even as artificial downtowns are created here and there, in the form of outdoor shopping centers or something like Santana Row. But there is no civic life to be found there, no cultural life except mass culture, no forum or plaza for people to come together as a community and be at leisure.
Having written on this many times to various friends, I'm a bit fatigued so I think I'll end here. Those who would like to know more about my reasons can read E.F. Schumacher, James Howard Kunstler's The Long Emergency or see some of the links on New Urbanism. Maybe I'll move to Idaho and try farming once I save enough money. [I don't think I've posted this link to an interview with JHK.]
Then there was the bus ride itself, which made me feel rather queasy--having a cold didn't help, but there's something about the air in a SamTrans bus that makes one feel sick... it's enough for one to choose to drive rather than take public transportation. No horse and buggy possible here.
On to multiculturalism and diversity in the Bay Area in a post to come...
Whatever I may think of the increasing number of Asian people in the Bay Area, I did see a cute Chinese(?) baby girl [all dressed in pink] at the post office today, and her sister was cute too. It's interesting how some people comment, "Someone's made a new friend," when a baby starts responding (with a smile or laugh) to whatever you are doing to catch the baby's attention... I usually don't use the word friend to cover all of the sorts associations to which Aristotle applies it, but it's not incorrect to do so... it just sounds a bit odd to me at the present moment. Haha maybe it's just the crankiness from the cold.
Tonight xiao Jimmy and I went to Armadillo Willy's Cupertino. The baby back ribs there are not so good, definitely not as good as the ones at Sunset. I would have picked something else but Jimmy said I should get the ribs. Ah well, next time I'll insist on something else. It's pretty much certain that I can't drink soda, at the minimum not soda dispensed by a machine, and probably not bottled soda either (I mean the smaller sized bottles, not the 2 L size bottles). It's not clear to me why this is so--I don't think it's because of the caffeine since the soda may be uncaffeinated and still cause problems. Ah well... soda's not healthy anyway, and it's a luxury drink in many ways... luxury in the sense that it's existence is possible only in a really "advanced" (or decadent) economy.
Jimmy brought up the fact that the Gubernator is going to make health insurance available to illegal immigrants? Something like that... given the direction California is taking, do I really want to live here? More cause for second thoughts.
After dinner we met up with Sophia and Stella at the Tapioca Express (no idea what ws stands for--anyone know? Guess it's specific to urls obtained through Website?) next to Marina Cupertino. Wow, 2.5 hours went by rather quickly, and we eventually got to talking about socializing, dating, and networking. Good conversation topic, since it lasted for a while. We then talked about the different forms of matchmaking--online services, internet networking through friends, lunch dates (like lunchdates.com or this site) and Dinner for Six, as well as speed dating. Any traditional matchmakers around in the Bay Area? Well, probably not for Asian Catholics. I didn't think I'd enjoy the evening that much, but I did--guess I'm not a complete misanthrope yet haha. Reminder: check Friendster and see who's on my list.
Didn't catch The Fountain in the theater... guess I'll have to wait until it's on DVD...
Thursday, January 04, 2007
To be a good technician, one needs to understand both the form and the matter. With respect to teaching at the primary level, the matter is the child, not just the intellect, but the whole person, especially how emotional development is linked to intellectual development, and character development to both. Moreover, before a certain age, children are not fully responsible for their actions and so teachers must be careful in how they respond to children when they do something inappropriate or even wrong.
So... i have good memories of my teachers for Kindergarten and 1st grade (who were in their late 50s), mixed of my 2nd grade teacher (who was rather young), good memories of my 3rd and 4th grade teachers (who were in their 50s), and after that, things generally go downhill. (High School is a different story.) Since I have experience teaching children and taking care of them, I think I have some basis for giving a critique. Would I tell a child, "Don't whine" without an explanation? No, and I don't consider, "It's annoying," to be a sufficient explanation. After all, in this age where self-esteem is so important, wouldn't such words hurt? I would think so. Such a response betrays a lack of sympathy for the child who perceives that there is a difficulty, is harmful to the teacher-student relationship, and has an impact on how children view authority. (It's like my complaint against teachers who admonish their students not to be a tattle-tale.)
Children whine because they are used to it, or it gets them attention or it gets them results. It can be just a more developed version of crying (with respect to that function). Setting the question of the validity of the whole "self-esteem" movement aside, what one must do is to create a new habit (or feedback/response loop, however one wants to couch it in modern psychological terms) through gental words of encouragement, which is the proper task of a mature adult. One needs to recognize that there is something causing the distress or sadness and address it, as well as establish some sort of empathy with the child, and showing both that recognition and empathy to the child in such a way that the child understands the adult is affirming it.
It seems to me that the war against boys was under way when I was in school, though it was not as overt or widespread as it is now. Boys may be very active or a bit chatty, and consequently be diagnosed with ADHD when it's just normal masculine behavior. While one should not go to the extreme and let them do whatever they want, trying to suppress such energy is just as wrong. Rather than be repressed, that energy needs to be structured and channeled properly (i.e. ordered), and boys need to be given times to "let loose" through play. Reason needs to be brought into the equation.
When I was working as a teacher, from time to time I felt compelled to punish a boy because he could not stay on task or was chatting. He wasn't bad or harming others, but I didn't want a negative evaluation on my work record, and I couldn't risk things getting out of control, even though personally I am fine with some noise in the classroom. I don't think a classroom has to be 100% silent at all times. I would regret giving the punishment afterwards, because the boy was just acting like a boy, within normal parameters. It is appropriate for the teacher to take such individual differences into account, but in contemporary American mass education, it is not possible--rather one needs to maintain control over the classroom environment, keep discipline, and maximize results by putting everyone into the same pigeonhole. Another reason why class sizes need to be smaller for intellectual formation. (Physical formation may be a different situation, but one can only supervise so many students, so there has to be a limit on number there as well.)
[A note to principals: classroom management is a skill that is acquired gradually through experience and the exercise of the moral virtues with respect to children--it is not a skill one picks up in a professional education program, and definitely not something that substitute teachers can acquire so easily. So instead of being a bureaucrat evaluating performance, why don't you help form future teachers instead by showing how it is to be done. Of course, it would not surprise me if they do not act as humane educators like St. John Bosco, but as classroom autocrats threatening punishment and enforcing it.]
I remember I was punished often during 6th grade, though I can't remember exactly what the cause was--probably for chatting too much. I think part of the over-socialization may have been compensation for feeling alienated from the rest of the students. Any friends I had in K to 2 were for the most part lost when I left the third grade during the middle of the year to go to the fourth. And then those friendships were completely severed when I changed schools for the fifth grade. I don't know why it became more difficult for me to make friends at the new school; things were going on at home during the time, so perhaps it is related to that. Also, during the 4th through 6th grades there was some measure of bullying. At least in 4th grade there was Chin-chi to stand up for me that one time, and eventually things did get a little bit better. Still, I didn't have many friends in that class. (All my dad did was to teach my how to roll after being pushed, not to hit back. Not that he would have gone to the office to talk to the principal and stand up for my right to self-defense if I had done so.) In the 6th grade there was another boy (I still remember his name, Devon) who would pick on me. At least the principal at the new school knew about the bullying, if only because we were both brought into the office after the yard duty lady found us fighting during indoor recess. Did my teacher know anything about what was going on in her classroom? I doubt it. (In a weaker moment, I would probably say she's a b****. A word with not just unpleasant but offensive associations, but at least its meaning is clear and it seems to apply in this case. A quick logic question: what sort of naming is this? Analogical, equivocal, or univocal? I don't think it's analogical or even metaphorical--though perhaps it is derogatory in so far as it dehumanizes the woman who is the subject of the insult.)
Chatting was a way to get attention, favor, companionship ,and affirmation--to not feel alone in the class--pretty basic reasons, I think. I remember participating in the bullying of another student (pulling his shorts down), just because some of the other students had done it and were encouraging others to do so, and I just wanted to fit in and be the "odd one" any more. Afterwards I felt ashamed and apologized to him, but I don't think I became completely free from peer pressure though.
Kids may be resilient, Dr. Laura thinks they can form new friendships rather quickly, and sure they can, because these are not the deep friendships of mature people. Hence she has no problem with people moving to new locations, and so on. Not that she has a developed view of politics, so one cannot expect her to respond to what I am going to say as if it were a critique of her. Nonetheless... Would it not be better for children of a community to grow up together and to associate and play with each other from time to time? Developing some sort of emotional bond between the children can be used as part of the basis for future civic friendship. If such bonds are destroyed because families do not settle in one place, will that not affect the identity, permanence, and stability of the community?
As for the benefits of socialization -- the much-touted argument advanced by those who would criticize parents who homeschool -- if other children are really "interchangeable"--if it doesn't matter with whom one socializes as long as one socializes, others become instrumental to one's development more than anything else, but socialization is not an end in itself, but rather for the sake of forming friendship. One should learn how to care for others, not in some sort of abstract way, but as concrete others living in one's community. (I don't see any problem with parents doing most of the instruction at home, so long as the children are brought into contact with other families and children as much as possible in order to begin their formation as members of a community. How much of education should be common is a question that does not seem to have been addressed by contemporary Catholic political theoreticians.)
(And socialization is not worth it, if it it comes at the price of the child coming under the bad influence, either of other children or from the school's curriculum, such as sex ed or naturalism.)
Wednesday, January 03, 2007
See this post for information about the movie. Official site. Korean Movie Database.
Kim Seung-woo plays Young-woon, Jang Jin-young plays Yoon-ah, who is a hyper-sassy girl and works as a hostess.
The amount of verbal abuse and physical violence (wrestling and slapping) that occurs between these two is rather perplexing, although perhaps it is meant to be a sign that all is not well. There is another scene which is rather offensive though not explicit, in which she sexually gratifies him while he is drunk.
All of the males shown are losers to one degree or another; Young-woon is weak and indecisive and bossed around by his mom, and of course there is the fact that he is carrying on relationships with two women at the same time. He is engaged to another woman, whom he eventually marries at the instigation of his mother. He doesn't completely use Youn-ah (even if it seems like she is more a sex toy than a partner) as he does care about her well-being to a degree. The problem is that he does not have a true moral quandary--he is reponsible for getting himself in the situation in the first place, through his wrong choices.
Why does the movie play up such unconventional characters? Is it because they are seen as fresh, and make for an unconventional love story? What is the justification for the movie? Such poor relationships seem to be the norm, at least here in the U.S., where love, marriage, and procreation have been severed from one another, and I suspect that such occurrences are on the rise in South Korea as well. Yoon-ah's love for Young-woon is a stupid love, and the relationship works mostly to her detriment. Love is not just about feelings, and the use of reason is necessary not only so that one loves others rightly, but so that one loves one's self rightly as well.
A posible weakness of the movie: it is not clear why she fell in love with him in the first place. What was the reason behind the attraction? Was she looking for someone "normal," someone who seems like a nice guy? But he's not--he has a lot of issues. Not only that but he is physically abusive--hitting his mentally handicapped brother and towards the end, after Youn-ah tells his wife about her relationship with Young-woon, he goes to her apartment and beats her up. Does this make for a psychologically plausible character? If it does, should we blame this use of violence on the society/culture? Can someone truly care about someone else and yet abuse them. In our culture, our first response is to say no.
Now I wonder if I should have not made it possible for others to watch the movie. I suppose I should screen Korean movies before downloading them and sending copies to others. Obviously the movie is supposed to be some sort of tragedy; the question is whether people will draw the right conclusions from it or not.
While I think the movie can be understood as validating traditional morality, is this what the film makers intended?
official site ; IGN gallery
Herc at AICN likes it... uh ok. This is an Ashton Kutcher production, and like many other "reality tv" shows, one wonders how much of it is actually real. And there is always the "deep message" that comes through at the end, as the beauties and the geeks realize that the others are actually people and not stereotypes.
(No Asian beauties? What's up with that?)
Finance has been trending away from economic reality since the Ronald Reagan era on an accelerating basis. By this I mean the role of finance no longer represents sets of mechanisms and institutions designed to raise legitimate capital for investment in legitimate productive activities. Finance is now an end in itself, essentially a racket. The capital is no longer capital, i.e. genuine wealth accumulated from previous productive activities. Now it is jive-capital: notional "wealth" spun out of activities that are fundamentally not productive -- for instance, sub-prime mortgages bundled into tradable securities. In reality, the mortgages backing these securities are contracts for repayment of huge loans made on hazardous terms by shifty means to people with poor prospects for making their payments for assets (suburban houses made of vinyl and glue) that are, in any case, fated to lose much of their nominal value, becoming worth less than the obligations yet due on them, and rapidly so.and
The sub-prime loans were made in the first place because the contracting institutions (banks) could pass off the risks associated with these jive contracts by off-loading them to larger institutions such as the government sponsored enterprises Fannie Mae (the Federal National Mortgage Association) and Freddie Mac (the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation) which are largely exempt from regulatory oversight and hence could buy up whatever cockamamie paper contracts they felt like buying and convert them into bonds, certificates said to represent future earnings. (Not.)
These mortgage backed securities were only one species of engineered abstract financial "instruments" among many orders of incomprehensibly abstract mutant financial "products" (derivatives, credit default swaps) and procedures (carry trade, leveraged buyouts,) based on the fundamental unreality that it is possible to get something for nothing.
The inertia part of the story is that this collective hallucination (that jive-capital was real) was sustained through 2006 by the sheer massive weight and flow of jive capital and its ability to elude scrutiny by countless chimerical conversions from one abstruse form to another -- from loan, to bond, to bet, to position, to Christmas bonus. . . . The final result, though, was a nation with an increasingly impoverished middle class, a bankrupt public treasury, and all remaining wealth (notional or residual) creamed off by a racketeering upper crust of logrolling insiders who, for the moment, could convert their dollars into multiple mansions, private jet planes, and sky boxes at the gladiatorial combats du jour.
The rest of the US economy was increasingly composed of a suburban development hyper-boom that amounted to little more overall than a colossal misinvestment in a living arrangement with no future (and the irreparable destruction of the remaining US landscape). The building-and-selling of suburban houses and the ancillary accessorizing of them with collector highways, strip malls, and big box stores, fast food huts, and all the jobs associated with constructing, lending, evaluating, selling, servicing, and staffing these things, along with additional rackets like home equity withdrawal refinancing to keep the cash registers ringing in the Wal-Marts and Home Depots -- these were the activities supposedly keeping the "regular" (i.e. lumpenprole) economy chugging along. If you subtracted all this "housing bubble" activity from the rest of this economy since 2001 there was very little left besides, hair-styling, fried chicken, and open heart surgery.
Yet, marvelous to relate, the whole toxic, entropy-laden, creaking, reeking cargo of shit-and-deceit that comprised this system just managed to keep rolling along for another year without collapsing under its own stinking, fantastically stupid weight.
I will be so bold to say that I called the housing crash correctly last year, though the worst symptoms are slow to present for technical reasons. There's no question that the action on the real estate scene changed drastically in mid-year. The implosion of this mighty structure of fraud, folly, and misinvestment so far has taken place in such breathtaking slow-motion that its victims have not really felt the pain from the falling bricks yet. By late summer, buyers started evaporating. Real estate signs planted in lawns last June are still sitting there on New Years. Prices have come down a bit in many markets, including most of the hotties such as Florida, Phoenix, Las Vegas, San Diego, and Boston. But the buyers are still not bidding. Meanwhile, the sellers have dug in, determined to get something at least close to their wished-for inflated prices, egged on by their representatives, the realtors. This mutually reinforcing psychology cannot hold indefinitely. Many of these sellers don't have the luxury to wait around forever. Some have had to move to other houses in other places because of job changes, and are stuck paying two mortgages. Many are stuck with "creative" mortgages that all the evil ingenuity of the human mind conjured in recent years to enable the feckless to live above their means -- adjustable rate, payment optional, no money down contracts that suckered buyers into booby-trapped obligations whose initial low-interest terms lured them in and are now set to blow up in their faces as terms automatically re-set upwards to higher rates and "optional" deferred payments get backloaded onto the principal, putting the mortgage holders so far underwater on their contracts that a tour of the Titanic would feel like a day at the beach.
The trouble is, when both the sellers and their agents decide to get with the reality program and lower their prices, they will only stimulate a massive death spiral of house price deflation as buyers see the numbers go lower and hold out longer in the expectation that prices will go down even further. That would, of course, put more sellers into gross distress and lead them either to dump their properties or enter the cold waters of default and foreclosure. The whole process could run for a couple of decades, and as that occurs it will be made much much worse by oil depletion -- as so many suburban houses drastically lose locational value, combined with the consequences of poor construction carried out in cheap materials like vinyl and chipboard.
Add to this that the late stages of the hyper-boom caused so much "product" to be brought onto the market by the "production home builders" that there now exists an unprecedented oversupply of exactly the kind of crappy suburban houses (in all price ranges) that are bound to lose value going just a little bit forward. Foreclosures will only add more to the oversupply. In the subprime mortgage niche, defaults are officially reported to be running at 20 percent. Foreclosures are trailing because the process is so awkward, and many have not yet shown up in the housing markets. I predict that foreclosures on subprime mortgages will run above the 50 percent range when all is said and done.
As the music stops in the lending rackets, liquidity in the form of mortgage backed securities and other sources of hallucinated "money" will dry up, and will start to make itself felt in all the other arenas and regions that "money" has been migrating to. Jobs associated with house-building and all those ancillary enterprises -- big box shopping, chain restaurant revenues, car sales -- will disappear and incomes with them. Many home sales in past decade were made to people benefiting directly from the housing bubble. (The sheer number of real estate agents in America more than doubled since 2001.) This evaporation of both credit and incomes will impact the so-called "consumer economy", said to make up 70 percent of the total US economy. In other words, the term "depression" might be applicable as this economy lurches into actual contraction of more than a few percentage points.
This scenario suggests that earnings in corporations listed on the public stock exchanges -- the companies that elude acquisition by "private equity" -- would necessarily see severe drops in earnings, and therefore in stock value. While many commentators view the rise in the Dow as just another symptom of inflation -- asset inflation -- the activity in these assets -- companies making, doing, and selling things -- must be reported on a quarterly basis. And if that activity is trending strongly downward, then stock prices will trend down even if the value of the dollar is going down and it takes more dollars to buy an equivalent share of stock year-over-year. So I would conclude by again predicting a substantial drop in the Dow and other equity markets. To some extent, it seems to me that the 2006 blow off in stock prices was just another symptom of the finance sector being decoupled from economic reality since real GDP probably contracted one percent in the second half of the year while misreporting and delusional thinking drove stock prices up.
One would think that the US dollar is poised to take a beating, and indeed the signs have been abundant that this is underway -- especially when the value of the dollar started to implode against the Euro around Thanksgiving. It has leveled off since then. But since then there have been other moves around the world to de-link commodity prices from the US dollar and restate them in Euros, especially oil, and the dollar's plunge will probably continue. A lot of commentators around the web have pointed out the side benefit for the US government to promote dollar inflation: to inflate itself out of crushing debt. But the government can't accomplish this without destroying the purchasing power of ordinary Americans and whatever remains of their meager savings. I'd have to conclude that the Federal Reserve is out of tricks for goosing economic activity. Their last major trick was hitching a jive economy to a real estate bubble by making loan money available to any jabonie with a pulse and promoting the demise of lending standards. The gambit lasted five years and is now blowing up in America's face.
Global economy faces a dangerous year
By Jephraim P Gundzik
Rising inflation and falling home prices are likely to push the US economy into recession by the second half of 2007. Gathering economic weakness, combined with negative real yields on US Treasury securities and growing political pressure to weaken the dollar will lead to significant dollar depreciation against most currencies.
Economic growth in Asia, Europe and Latin America will also weaken in 2007. Slowing global economic growth will be very bad news for equity markets around the world. Dollar depreciation and rising international energy and grain prices will be good news for precious metals.
Impact of instability on commodity prices
While global geopolitical instability has ratcheted higher every year since the terrorist attacks on the US in September 2001, global asset markets have hardly responded. In 2006, many of the world’s stock markets, including America's, reached record highs. As geopolitical instability increases further in 2007 the probability of major disruptions in energy supplies will grow.
Instability in the Middle East and Africa is very likely to increase in 2007. Intensification of Iraq’s civil war, conflict between Washington and Tehran, escalating war between the Israelis and Palestinians, and growing domestic pressure on Lebanon’s US-backed government will heighten instability in the Middle East. This instability will help fuel growing unrest in Sudan, Chad, Congo and Somalia, provoking significant military conflicts in Africa. Afghanistan’s insurgency is also expected to become more violent, prompting the gradual withdrawal of NATO forces.
Unprecedented global geopolitical instability will have its most obvious impact on international commodity prices. More frequent energy supply disruptions in the Middle East and Africa, combined with accelerating natural oil production declines in the world’s largest oil fields, will keep crude oil and natural gas prices buoyant. Slower than anticipated global economic growth will not push oil prices lower in 2007.
Production discipline - much greater than generally understood - among the world’s major oil exporters will ensure oil supply growth remains below demand growth. The continued rise of global energy prices in 2007, paired with growing demand for renewable energy, will produce further strong increases in international grain prices. In 2006, corn and wheat prices in the US jumped by 70% and 60% respectively. Much of this jump occurred between September and December.
Rapid growth of ethanol production capacity worldwide has contributed to this leap in corn and wheat prices. Prices for soybeans and other oilseeds have also begun to head higher on the back of rapidly growing global demand for biodiesel fuel. The substantial increase in petroleum-related energy prices since 2001 is only one factor behind growing demand for biofuels. Increasingly stringent environmental regulations, energy security concerns and targeted levels for alternative energy use in many countries is also driving demand for biofuels.
Inflation and recession
The growing use of corn, wheat, soybeans and other grains to produce biofuels is expected to nearly double prices for these commodities in 2007. In addition to grain-related foods, prices for other food staples that are grain-dependent, including meat and milk products, will also head higher in 2007. The result will be much higher than expected US inflation. Consumer price inflation (CPI) in the US is already significantly higher than CPI in Germany, Switzerland, the UK and Japan. In 2007, US inflation will accelerate, widening the inflation gap between it and other countries.
By every measure, inflation in the US has clearly accelerated since 2004. In 2005, the Federal Reserve’s preferred measure of inflation, the personal consumption expenditure (PCE) deflator exceeded 2% for the first time since 1995. The core PCE has continued to accelerate in 2006, and will likely top 2.5% by the end of the year. This is significant because the Fed’s stated aim is to keep core PCE between 1.5% and 2%. The steady acceleration of core PCE shows that inflation from rising energy prices has penetrated the broader US economy.
Despite the obvious acceleration of inflation, the Federal Reserve shifted monetary policy into neutral in late summer. The Fed has justified more accommodative monetary policy in the face of rising inflation by suggesting that slowing US economic growth will eventually mitigate inflation. This is a huge gamble because US inflation is being pushed higher by supply-driven energy price shocks rather than demand. In 2007, continued energy supply shocks are likely to feed a grain supply shock, stoking a sharp increase in food price inflation and further acceleration of core PCE.
The stated logic behind the Fed’s monetary policy change is spurious, to say the least. A 12-year-old child could grasp the idea that energy supply problems are pushing US inflation higher and that these supply problems are likely to intensify in 2007. This suggests that another explanation must be behind the Fed’s shift to more accommodative monetary policy. The most likely seems to be growing concern among Fed policymakers over increasing systemic problems for the US financial system arising from the collapse of the US housing market.
Between 2001 and 2005, very low interest rates in the US, combined with the proliferation of non-traditional mortgage products and easy credit access, allowed many American households to convert substantial home price gains into income gains through cash-out mortgage refinancing. Cash-out mortgage refinancing accounted for about 50% of all mortgage refinancing between 2001 and 2004. In 2005, cash-out mortgage refinancing accounted for 73% of all mortgage refinancing. In the first half of 2006, cash-out refinancing accounted for a staggering 87% of all refinancing.
Home price appreciation in the US slowed sharply in the first half of 2006. In the third quarter of 2006, home prices began to fall steeply. According to data from the US Census Bureau, new home prices dropped nearly 10% in September 2006 from the same period in 2005. This marks the sharpest fall in US home prices in 35 years. Rising inventories of unsold homes have been pushing home prices lower.
Recently, America’s largest home builders and home sellers have begun trying to convince investors and home buyers that the housing market has stabilized. Falling long-term interest rates have reduced mortgage rates, encouraging a very small number of buyers to return to the market. However, the housing sector’s weak pulse is very likely to vanish again in early 2007 as confusion over Federal Reserve policy mounts, the pace of inflation quickens and financial markets in the US swoon.
America’s economic fairytale has turned into a nightmare and very few investors realize it. In addition to producing a sudden and sharp decline in household income by eliminating the prospect of new mortgage refinancing for many Americans, declining prices for new and existing homes will have a strong negative impact on the US financial system, severely restraining credit growth. Falling home prices, especially in what were once the hottest housing and mortgage markets in the US, have caused mortgage default rates and foreclosures to surge higher.
The combination of rising defaults, foreclosures and falling collateral values is beginning to weaken the balance sheets of mortgage lenders, including several of America’s largest banks. Growing weakness in the banking sector is very alarming. Banking sector and economic crises in many countries over the past 25 years can be traced to overly enthusiastic credit growth used to finance either capital investment or real estate speculation, or both. Japan offers a stunning example of what can happen after a real estate bubble bursts.
The Federal Reserve appears determined to let financial markets “self-correct” in order to adjust interest rates to changing expectations for economic growth and inflation. Self-correction is a defining feature of financial markets. However, with the Fed rudderless, it is very unlikely that this self-correction will occur in an orderly and gradual manner. Rather, such self-correction will be sudden and sharp.
Growing concern at the Federal Reserve over the impact of rapidly rising mortgage defaults and foreclosures on the US banking system will prevent it from tightening monetary policy in 2007. Inflation in the US is already substantially higher than inflation in Europe and Japan. Rising energy prices joined by rising food prices will have a greater impact on inflation in the US than in Europe and Japan because dollar depreciation is expected to partially offset rising dollar-based commodity prices in 2007.
In addition, inflation will rise from a much lower base in Europe and Japan than in the US. As a result, US inflation will be much higher than inflation in most other countries in 2007. More importantly, real yields on US Treasury securities, which are only marginally positive now, are expected to become negative in 2007 as US inflation climbs higher and the Fed begins to cut interest rates.
At the same time, real yields on European and Japanese government bonds, which are already higher than real yields in the US, are expected to move higher. The growing real yield gap between the US and other countries will place enormous downward pressure on the dollar. Waning Fed credibility and increasing political pressure in the US for dollar depreciation will speed the dollar’s decline.
Democrats will take control of the US Congress in January 2007. Democrats have a strong history of economic intervention and are very likely to use trade and exchange rate policy changes in an attempt to reinvigorate rapidly slowing US economic growth. Asia’s economic giants, Japan and China, are likely to take the brunt of any economic policy changes engineered in the US Congress.
Legislation in the US aimed at prying open export markets in Japan and China is likely to inflame already substantial trade tensions, especially between Washington and Beijing. Meanwhile, the implicit change in US exchange rate policy that will precede such legislation will increase downward pressure on the value of the dollar against all major currencies, particularly the yen.
The dollar is likely to depreciate by at least 20% against the yen, the Swiss franc, the euro and the pound in 2007. The dollar will also depreciate against the currencies of emerging market commodity exporters. Finally, Beijing will probably allow the yuan to appreciate about 10% against the dollar. Rather than political pressure from Washington, continued high energy prices and soaring grain prices will motivate the revaluation of the yuan.
Sliding stock markets
Economic growth in China is likely to slip towards 6% in 2007. Beijing’s enormous fiscal latitude will ensure that ramped up fiscal spending will partially offset significant weakness in China’s US-oriented export sector. Accelerated yuan revaluation against the dollar will help offset the inflationary impact of rising energy and grain prices. Economic growth in Japan will probably fall below 1.5% in 2007 due to export sector weakness. In addition to importing all of its energy needs, Japan relies on imports of US corn for sustaining domestic meat production. This reliance on energy and grain imports will encourage the Bank of Japan to push the yen higher against the dollar to contain inflation.
Economic growth in Korea should slow towards 1% in 2007. Growing tensions between Washington and Pyongyang will undermine private consumption and investment while much weaker US- and China-bound exports will slow export sector growth. Like Japan, Korea is also a major importer of US corn. Won appreciation against the dollar will be limited by growing security concerns. As a result, inflation will accelerate, further undermining the won.
Economic growth in South and Southeast Asia will also slow sharply. In addition to slowing US economic growth, increasing global geopolitical instability will lead to more frequent and violent terrorist attacks, especially in India, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand. These attacks will produce further political and social instability. Foreign capital flight, driven by much slower than expected economic growth and a sharp correction in US equities, will make these countries Asia’s worst investment performers in 2007.
Economic growth in Latin America will also suffer from the US downturn in 2007. Mexico, where political and social instability are expected to increase substantially while US-bound exports grind to a halt, should follow the US into recession. Capital flight will weaken the peso, preventing exchange rate appreciation from offsetting the impact of sharply higher corn prices on the domestic food industry.
Economic growth in Brazil, Colombia and Peru will also slow sharply in 2007. Brazil’s export sector will benefit from soaring grain prices, while Colombia and Peru will suffer from the same. Equities in all four countries will follow US equities downward. Economic growth in Venezuela, Ecuador and Argentina will benefit from soaring commodity prices. This will not prevent equity market correction, but should underpin exchange rates in all three countries.
With the notable exception of Turkey, economic growth in Europe should suffer the least from slowing US economic growth in 2007. Monetary policy in the EU will tighten further, underpinning currency appreciation. Economic interdependence between EU members will insulate the region somewhat from slowing economic growth in the rest of the world. Russia will benefit from rising commodity prices. Despite more promising economic prospects, equities across Europe will follow US equities in a sharp correction.
Bond markets around the world are likely to be very volatile in 2007. Rapidly changing economic growth and inflation expectations will produce wide price swings. This volatility will be led by US bonds, which will see falling yields in early 2007 be replaced by rising yields in mid-2007 as inflation increases and foreign capital flight accelerates. Spreads on emerging market bonds will widen with falling equity markets around the world. Commodities, including energy, grains and precious metals, will probably perform much better than traditional investment assets as both investors and central banks speed diversification.
Jephraim P Gundzik is president of Condor Advisers. Condor Advisers provides investment risk analysis to individuals and institutions worldwide. Visit www.condoradvisers.com for more information.
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
Al-Qaeda's harrowing experiences after its retreat from Afghanistan in 2001 and during military operations in the Pakistani tribal areas of Waziristan cost it hundreds of arrests and casualties.
As a result, al-Qaeda reformed its tunnel vision and concluded that it should concentrate fighters in small pockets to establish tiny "kingdoms of heaven" all over the Islamic world, instead of becoming involved in global fights against US targets.
The strategy finally began to pay off in 2006 in Afghanistan and Iraq, where leading amirs (commanders) are in place, although the losses of foreign forces are fewer than al-Qaeda might have expected. This process, therefore, is still in the phase of implementation.
Crucially, though, al-Qaeda has evolved from an "idea" with a small group of followers into a tangible physical entity, especially in Iraq, where the resistance is on course to be fully taken over by al-Qaeda. The execution of Saddam Hussein will help al-Qaeda become the unifying force of all Iraqi warring segments, very much like the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Using Afghanistan and Iraq as springboards, al-Qaeda aims to unite all ideological allies under one strategic platform where their thoughts become al-Qaeda's. This, it is believed, will give them the courage to face down the "demon" US war machine that has kept them cowed in the past. The example is the new-found harmony between Pashtun tribes and the Taliban in Afghanistan and al-Qaeda and Sunni Arab tribes in Iraq.
Al-Qaeda has targeted what it sees as the repugnant association of ruling establishments and Islamists in Muslim countries such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. These will be the new and broader fronts of wars fought under a structured al-Qaeda command.
Dan Bednarz, Ph.D., The Healthcare Blog
America’s healthcare predicament will be resolved in the context of the worldwide energy emergency idiomatically known as “peak oil.”Seattle "peak-oilers" prepare for a world without petroleum
In short, the era of cheap, abundant fossil fuels is entering its twilight and medicine - virtually cut-off from this awareness—is exposed to the consequences. Like any other system healthcare requires energy and resources to function; fossil fuels, especially petroleum, provide both.
Andrew Garber, Seattle Times
Food shortages, cars abandoned, another depression. It's the stuff of nightmares — and the type of future an eclectic group of engineers, computer experts and others in Seattle believe could await us.Not all whose work depends on readily-available electricity are unaware of peak oil.
They're not religious zealots predicting Armageddon, nor survivalists digging bomb shelters. They believe the world is about to start running out of gas.
Members of Seattle Peak Oil Awareness expect world production of oil and gasoline to peak soon, if it hasn't already, and hard times to follow. Similar groups are popping up around the country from Boston to Portland, despite oil-industry assertions that there's nothing to worry about.
Seattle Peak Oil Awareness
December 29, 2006
Design or Consequence of US Policy?
The Re-Talibanization of Afghanistan
By ABID MUSTAFA
Lately, relations between Kabul and Islamabad have taken a dramatic turn for the worse. Hamid Karzai has accused Pakistan of spurring the Taliban to carry out attacks against his fledgling government and the NATO troops that defend it. He is not alone in holding Pakistan responsible for the re-emergence of the Taliban. NATO commanders, the New York Times and the International Crisis Group (ISG) have all pointed the finger at Pakistan for fomenting the Pushtoon resistance that shows no sign of abating.
On its part, the Musharraf government vehemently denies such accusations and continues to blame Karzai's government for its failure to include the Taliban and other militants as part of the national reconciliation drive. It must be stressed here"Pakistan is almost isolated on its present stance"evidence to the contrary shows that Islamabad has actively nurtured Taliban fighters to reassert their authority on towns and villages ceded to US led forces in the aftermath Taliban's collapse during the winter of 2001.
Oddly enough, the Whitehouse instead of holding Islamabad to account has thrown its weight behind the Pakistani government and has suggested that a more collaborative approach between Islamabad and Kabul would stymie the rising militancy in Afghanistan. Washington's ambivalent attitude raises the question; is America encouraging the emergence of Taliban as a way of extricating itself from Afghanistan?
The answer lies in the Afghan coalition America cobbled together to ouster Taliban. Back then, the Bush administration believed that the Northern Alliance (NA) could be used as an instrument to remove the Taliban from power, subdue the Pushtoon resistance, and bring stability to Afghanistan. But just the opposite occurred on all three fronts. From the outset of the Bonn Conference it became plainly clear that the NA was rife with internal rancour and prone to outside influences of Russia and Europe. America, having spent millions of dollars buying the fickle loyalty of warlords was left with no option, but to counter the Pushtoon resistance on her own. If this was not bad enough"America's association with the NA enraged the Pushtoons further who felt politically isolated and indignant towards the Tajik-Uzbek dominated government in Kabul. As a result, a violent rebellion erupted against Karzai and his US masters. The epicentre of the rebellion quickly became the strip of land known as the Pakistani tribal belt that abuts Afghanistan. Fighters from all over Afghanistan opposed to the occupation sought refuge here and mingled freely with the remnants of Taliban and other Pashtoons disillusioned with American promises of a better Afghanistan.
Unable to quell the resistance, America had to change tack. In 2003 acting under the tutelage of US Ambassador to Afghanistan Khalilzad, Karzai adopted a two prong approach to suppress the resistance. He offered an olive branch to moderate Taliban fighters and declared an all out assault against hardened Pashtoon militants and their backers. The intention was to shore up Karzai's beleaguered government with moderate elements of the resistance movement and to win the support of tribal elders on both sides of the Afghan-Pak border. The longevity of any government in Kabul is dependant upon the support of the Pashtoons. In Karzai's case, his constituency was diminishing and support base dwindling.
America was fully aware that the Pushtoon uprising could not be defeated unless the support structures for waging guerrilla warfare against US forces were destroyed, especially those located in Pakistan's tribal belt region or Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). After all, it was with American money and know-how that the military infrastructure was meticulously assembled by Pakistan's ISI. Training camps strewn across the region were established to arm and train Afghans to wage asymmetric war against the Soviets. Not surprisingly then, America turned to enlist Pakistan to deploy its army to the restless tribal areas. Musharraf promptly obliged, and in 2004 under the pretext of fighting foreign fighters linked to al-Qaeda, military operations commenced in South and North Waziristan agencies.
However, the Pakistani military forays into the tribal region yielded very little success for the Americans. Instead, the Pakistan army suffered high causalities"some ranks even experienced mutiny; Musharraf, America's stalwart in region lost credibility; the Pashtoon resistance increased in ferocity, the government in Kabul looked ever shakier and for the first time the prospect of defeat in Afghanistan troubled American officials. Confronted with these realities America decided to resurrect the Taliban. Pakistan swiftly abandoned military force and hurriedly concluded peace pacts with pro-Taliban tribal elders in the agencies.
Taliban buoyed by Pakistan's apparent turn around, extended their reach further into Pakistan and made Quetta, the capital city of Balochistan an additional mainstay for their activities. Here they began to rearm and recruit young men from religious seminaries, replenish their front lines with valuable supplies for the planned spring offensive next year. Some of the new recruits were given senior positions in preference to old Taliban warriors whose loyalty could no longer be guaranteed by Pakistan's ISI. Thus the Taliban were swiftly transformed from a rag-tag band of men into a force to be reckoned with. This boosted their capability to lead the Pushtoon resistance in many parts of Afghanistan. NATO was the first international organisation to borne the full brunt of a rejuvenated Taliban movement. Some members of NATO were surprised by the intensity and the magnitude of the resistance. UK's Defence Secretary Des Brown said," We do have to accept that it's been even harder than we expected."
America deftly exploited the upsurge in attacks against NATO troops to press home to alliance members at the NATO summit in Riga, the need to permanently redefine the organisation's mission, approve proposed amendments to its charter, establish a 25,000 strong rapid reaction force, and to increase troop levels to buttress NATO operations in Afghanistan. At the Riga summit Bush said,"The Taliban radicals who are trying to pull down Afghanistan's democracy and regain power saw the transfer from American to NATO control as a window of opportunity to test the will of the AllianceToday Afghanistan is NATO's most important military operation, and by standing together in Afghanistan, we'll protect our people, defend our freedom, and send a clear message to the extremists the forces of freedom and decency will prevail."
Nonetheless, the NATO mission in Afghanistan exposed deep fissures"over political and operational issues" amongst some of the older members of the alliance. France was unequivocal in its condemnation to make NATO duplicate functions of the UN, while Britain, America's closet alley expressed dismay at Pakistan's endeavours to revive the Taliban. UKs Ministry of Defence intentionally leaked a report that revealed the extent to which Pakistan's ISI was providing assistance to the Taliban thereby contributing to the death of British soldiers in southern Afghanistan. The disclosure was supposed to embarrass Musharraf on his visit to London who promptly proceeded to reject the allegation that ISI was a rogue institution acting separately from the army. He said, "ISI is a disciplined force, breaking the back of al-Qaida."
To redress the short-sightedness of Britain's NATO policy in Afghanistan, Blair visited Pakistan in November, and again urged Musharraf to put a halt to the rise of the Taliban. The gravity of the deteriorating situation facing Britain's armed forces was summed up in a speech given by Blair at Camp Bastion in Helmand province. Blair said, "Here in this extraordinary piece of desert is where the future of world security in the early twenty-first century is going to be played out." Earlier, Bush had described Iraq and not Afghanistan"central to the ideological struggle of the 21st century. The difference in Anglo-American perspectives underscores America's belief that General Musharraf will stabilise Afghanistan for them.
On the battle front, acute differences have surfaced between American and British commanders. Britain ignored American sensibilities and urged her ally Mohammed Daud the governor of Helmand to and secure the retreat of British forces from the town of Musa Qala via a peace deal with the Taliban. But the Americans publicly criticised the truce in Musa Qala and other Helmand towns, saying they effectively gave in to the Taliban. Exasperated by British tactics, the Americans instructed Karzai to remove Daud from power. "The Americans knew Daud was a main British ally," one official told The Independent on Sunday, "yet they deliberately undermined him and told Karzai to sack him." Americans have also been irked by the British commander of the NATO force in Afghanistan, Lieutenant-General David Richards. On 10/12/06 the British paper Independent on Sunday reported that the American supreme commander of NATO, General Jim Jones, has let it be known, according to sources, that General Richards "would have been sacked if he had been an American officer".
Away from the battle field, the Pakistani political establishment confident of a Taliban victory come next spring, has begun to instil momentum in the idea that NATO must consult the Taliban prior to any political settlement. On 30/11/06 Mushahid Hussain Sayed, chairman of the Pakistan's foreign affairs committee, told a visiting delegation of British Parliamentarians: "There has to be negotiations, a dialogue with all elements of Afghan society"ethnic or political, including, frankly, members of the resistance." Latif Khosa, of the opposition Pakistan People's Party said,"You have to open avenues for talking with the Taliban." Speaking before the press, Foreign Office Spokesperson Tasnim Aslam said, "The international community must encourage national reconciliation and undertake an extensive reconstruction programme for South and Southeast Afghanistan."
It appears that America's plan is to exploit the Taliban to take the helm of the indigenous Afghan resistance, invest the battle field gains made by the resistance into a political process, which recognises the Pushtoon's popular base, but is cognisant of other ethnic groups' concerns; then convene an international conference to forge a comprehensive settlement pertaining to Afghanistan and the interference from its neighbours. The pertinent issues will be the composition of the new government in Kabul, the continuation of US bases, the resolution of the border disputes between Afghanistan and Pakistan, resettlement of Afghan refugees and the successful integration of FATA into mainstream Pakistani life.
In this way, US policy makers hope to stabilise Afghanistan and use as a conduit for transporting the rich energy reserves of the Caspian region, conducting military incursion into the former Soviet Republics, thwarting Russian and Chinese expansions into Central Asia and foiling the re-establishment of the Caliphate. However, the success of this plan depends upon factors which may no longer be in Washington's control such as can the Pashtoons be trusted, will the Europeans tolerate a Taliban dominated government in Kabul, and will the Russian and Chinese remain quiet as they did after 9-11.
As far as the people of Pakistan are concerned they have been duped by General Musharraf into believing that Pakistan had no choice, but to disown the Taliban and join America's war on terror. Five years on, Pakistan has again embraced the Taliban at the America's behest. This time it is to help the US extricate itself from Afghanistan and preserve her plan for the region. General Musharraf is right when he said that without Pakistan's help the West would have been brought to its knees. But under his leadership it is Pakistan that has been brought to its knees in a senseless quest to preserve American interests.
Abid Mustafa is a political commentator who specialises in Muslim affairs. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
By MICHAEL WATTS
Ryzard Kapucinski, the great Polish journalist, once wrote that 'oil is a fairy tale and like every fairy tale a bit of a lie'. The terrifying oil explosion that engulfed a Lagos neighborhood following Christmas Day--the current death toll is almost 300--says less about vandals who hot-tap the exposed pipelines running through the city's abject slum world than the venality, waste and corruption of a Nigerian petro-capitalism fuelled by windfall profits and modernity's addiction to the automobile. The horrific pictures of charred human carcasses being dragged from the burned-over wreckage of the Awori area of Abule Egba, a suburb of Lagos, is a bleak testimony to the total failure--the great lie--of secular national development in post-colonial Nigeria. The spectacle of an oil nation in which desperate poor city dwellers scramble to scoop petrol and kerosene from ruptured or tapped pipelines stands at the heart of the abject failure of many oil states, what Stanford political scientist Terry Karl calls 'the paradox of plenty'.
Nigeria produces over 2 million barrels of oil a day (currently valued at roughly $40 billion per year) which accounts for 90% of its export earnings and 80% of government revenue. Nigeria also supplies 9% of US imports and is the pillar in the US post 9/11 African oil strategy of the Bush administration which anticipates that the Gulf of Guinea will provide perhaps 25% of US imports by 2015. A multi-billion dollar oil industry is however a mixed blessing at best, and for most Nigerians nothing more than a fairy tail gone awfully wrong. To inventory the 'achievements' of Nigerian oil development is a salutary exercise: 85 percent of oil revenues accrue to 1 percent of the population; over three decades perhaps one quarter of $400 billion in oil; revenues have simply disappeared; between 1970 and 2000 in Nigeria, the number of people subsisting on less than one dollar a day grew from 36 percent to more than 70 percent, from 19 million to a staggering 90 million. According to the International Monetary Fund, oil 'did not seem to add to the standard of living' and 'could have contributed to a decline in the standard of living'. The anti-corruption chief Nuhu Ribadu (one of the few bright lights on a dark political landscape), claimed that in 2003 70% of the country's oil wealth was stolen or wasted; by 2005 it was 'only' 40%. Over the period 1965-2004, the per capital income fell from $250 to $212 while income distribution deteriorated markedly. Since 1990 GDP per capita and life expectancy have, according to World Bank estimates, both fallen. This isn't pretty.
What, then, is the real story behind the horrors of Abule Egba? Let's begin with the fact that in the days before the explosion, fuel was almost impossible to find in Lagos and other cities across the country. Massive lines at gas stations during the holiday period were in large measure the produce of a hugely inefficient and corrupt local refining industry that functions, if at all, well below capacity. The brutal reality of life in the Nigerian petro-state is that fuel for everyday use is one of the country's scarcest commodities.
What might strike the American reader as a bizarre, and potentially deadly, popular livelihood strategy, namely oil theft, exposes the rank underbelly of Nigerian development. The poor quality of oil pipeline infrastructure and their close proximity to human habitation has long been a matter of concern for Nigerian activities and communities in the oil producing and consuming regions. In fact the recent Lagos disaster is business as usual. In 2003 I visited the remains of a church in Okrika, in the heart of the oil-producing Niger delta region, which had been incinerated by a pipeline explosion during a Sunday-morning service. Overall, the picture is one of massive irresponsibility and complacency by the Nigerian National Petroleum Company (NNPC) which has responsibility for most of the pipeline infrastructure, and a dismal lack of leadership and political will from Abuja, the federal capital.
Since the late 1990s, there have been at least major ten explosions and at least 2000 deaths associated with punctured and vanadalized pipelines. In 1998 over 1000 persons died in Jesse; more than 300 were burned alive in Warri in 2000. There have been at least three huge fires in Lagos alone since late 2004, the most recent on May 12th 2006. Countless other smaller events rarely reach the pages of the Nigerian press. The announcement by President Obasanjo that he has only now approved the NNPC plan to re-lay 5000 kilometers of pipelines underground can only be met with amazement--and the deepest of cynicism.
There are at least two important facets of the Awori story. One is what it says of the vast Nigerian slum world of which Lagos is part. By some estimations Lagos has a population of seventeen millions. Mike Davis in his extraordinary new book Planet of the Slums reminds us that perhaps eighty to ninety per cent of the rapidly growing population of African cities--Lagos is forty times larger than it was in 1950--are barracked in slums, a Dickensian nightmare of squalor, poverty and disease. The slum world of Lagos defies description, in part because its operations remain a mystery. In Ajegunle, one of its vast swamp shanty towns, perhaps 1.5 million people inhabit eight square kilometers. In a recent New Yorker article, George Packer describe the city as a burning garbage heap, populated by armies of scavengers that are superfluous and ultimately disposable. It is no wonder that Governor Bola Tinubu of Lagos saw in the charred remains of Abule Egba, 'the shame of our nation'.
And what of the vandalization of the pipelines and the theft of oil? The women and children who gathered around the punctured pipeline were almost certainly bit players. The pipe had been tapped on Christmas Eve and by the early morning there were widespread reports of two fuel tankers being filled in the presence of local police. Oil theft--referred to locally as 'bunkering'--is a very large and well organized business in Nigeria. By some estimations perhaps 10-15% of Nigerian oil is stolen by so-called oil syndicates. The impoverished Lagosians who scoop fuel into jerry cans are low-level feeders in a vast ecosystem of crime that reaches to the very highest levels of government and military, and involves the complicity of the transnational oil majors. Across the Niger Delta oil fields well-connected military and government officials have made use of disenfranchised and unemployed youth groups to orchestrate the tapping of major pipelines and to run the oil barges through the tangle of creeks in the Delta to offshore loading stations--all under the watchful eye of the Nigerian navy and coast guard. At present prices, this oil mafia controls a black economy worth billions of dollars annually.
Yet the bunkering business has radically backfired. Angry youth groups, many from marginalized ethnic minorities across the Niger Delta largely excluded from the federal oil revenue allocation process, have gained control of important sections of the oil theft trade. Bunkering finances the purchase of large caches of weapons for what has become a series of armed insurgences across the oilfields. The movement for resource control and self-determination that sprang to life in the late 1980's in the non-violent movement of Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni people, by the late 1990s had morphed into a series of militias the Niger Delta Vigilante, The Niger Delta Peoples Volunteer Force--for whom the slick alliance of a corrupt oil state and unaccountable transnational oil companies became the object of an armed and increasingly violent struggle. Many of these insurgents began life as political thugs hired by oil-fuelled politicians in the elections of 1999 and 2003 but their insertion into the bunkering trade has granted them a political autonomy and a military capability to conduct a guerilla war in the swamps and creeks of the Niger Delta.
In late 2005 a hitherto unknown militia--the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta [MEND]--took a number of oil worker hostages and subsequently mounted massive attacks on oil infrastructures owned by Chevron, Agip, Shell and the Nigerian national oil company. By late 2006 MEND has grown increasingly more brazen to the point where some companies have commenced the evacuation of expatriate staff. The turbulence on the Nigerian oilfields date back to the 1990's and escalated dramatically at the time that President Obasanjo came to power in 1999. The national oil company estimates that between 1998 and 2003, there were four hundred vandalizations on company facilities each year. In seven years the insurgencies and conflicts have cost the government $6.8 billion in lost oil revenue.
The Niger Delta is now almost ungovernable. In a 2005 report, Amnesty International concluded that the Nigerian security forces still operate with impunity. The government, they claim, has failed to protect communities in oil producing areas while providing security to the oil industry. The terrible conditions across the delta are compounded by the policies of the transnational oil companies who have finally acknowledged that their practices of community development and 'cash payments' have made the situation worse. In June 2004, the leak of an internally commissioned Shell Nigeria report revealed the company's direct contribution to corrupt practices and inter-community violence which has eroded what they call their 'license to operate.'
In the ashes of the Lagos inferno lies a much darker story of state corruption, corporate power and a growing oil insurgency, all framed by the existence of endemic poverty amidst oil wealth. As Nigeria prepares for the elections of April 2007, the grave danger is that buoyant oil prices will fund a huge electoral war chest for politicians only too willing to deploy restive youth and angry insurgents for their own political purposes.
In the background stands the US military. According to General James Jones, in testimony offered to the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2005, the new objective in Africa "should be to eliminate ungoverned areas, to counter extremism, and to end conflict and reduce the chronic instability" because of Africa's "potential to become the next front in the Global War on Terrorism." At a May 2006 African Seapower Conference in Abuja. Admiral Harry Ulrich, EUCOM's Commander of US Naval Forces Europe and Africa in referring to Shell's Bonga oil field --Nigeria's largest oil field, costing $3.6 billion to develop and lying within Nigeria's territorial waters--admitted that American ships were patrolling Nigerian oil fields within the 200 mile limit: "We are concerned for Nigeria and we want to help her protect the region from the hands of the maritime criminal..the US and any good nation want a safe coast for countries who are supplying their energy and that is why we are often there. So there is nothing to fear for Nigeria". Against a backdrop of spiraling militancy across the Delta, US interests have met up with European strategic concerns in the region and have established the Gulf of Guinea Energy Security Strategy.
By December, 2005 the American ambassador and the Managing Director of Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation agreed to establish four special committees to co-ordinate action against trafficking in small arms in the Niger Delta, bolster maritime and coastal security in the region, promote community development and poverty reduction, and combat money laundering and other financial crimes. The oil majors facing shut in of up to 500,000 barrels per day are inevitably concerned. A senior maritime analyst at the U.S. Office of Naval Research, revealed to participants at March 2006 conference at Fort Lauderdale "Shell led a group of oil companies in an approach to the US military for protection of their facilities in the Delta," and warned that "Nigeria may have lost the ability to control the situation." It is a perfect storm of oil-lubricated conflict. An oil inferno of another sort.
Interested readers might want to look at a new International Policy Report (2007) published by the Centre for International Policy in Washington DC by Paul Lubeck, Ronnie Lipschitz and myself which discusses the militarization of the Gulf of Guinea. The report is entitled "Convergent Interests: US Energy Security and the "Securing" of Nigerian Democracy" .Michael Watts is Director of Centre for African Studies, University of California, Berkeley