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Maintaining Optimism in the Face of Reality. Occasional observations on the state of the world, society, business and politics. Usually anchored by facts, always augmented by opinion.


Walmart's Scale  | e-mail post

I had a couple of my friends since college visit this weekend. It was good seeing them. We discussed a variety of things, but on Sunday morning, the conversation for some reason turned to Walmart. My friend from L.A. was particularly surprised that I, a business owner and typically pro-business Republican, am actually very much in favor of municipalities using zoning to prevent Walmarts from moving into cities. As he says, he is used to reflexive support among his friends in L.A., but was surprised I would be on board.

I said it was a matter of scale. Walmart is too big, but because of the fragmentation of the market in which they operate, they are a long way from causing antitrust concerns. And believe me, by the time they are big enough to meet antitrust criteria, we're in trouble. thus, the only option for regulation under our current legal regime is this sort of local zoning control.

I thought I would take a moment to help people understand just how large Walmart is, because I think it is easy to lose perspective on something like this. I mean, everyone knows they're big. But how big?

Employees: Walmart employs 1,700,000 people, according to the most recent figure on Yahoo Finance. If it were a state, it would be the 39th largest state in the nation, just behind Nebraska. Clearly, "fewer people than Nebraska" doesn't make it sound so large. Let me put it another way. Consider the following small businesses:
These companies, combined, employ about 1.7 million people. (Again, figures from Yahoo Finance's company profiles).

Put a third way, about half of the U.S. population is "working age" right now (25-64). That means that about 1.1% of the U.S. labor pool is employed directly by Walmart. This doesn't include the largely contract (and in some cases illegal, judging from occasional news reports) labor used to clean their stores, and other effectively direct employees.

Market Scale: Walmart's trailing 12 month revenue is about 2.91 billion. According to federal statistics, total U.S. retail sales for 2004, excluding automotive, was 2.63 trillion dollars. Again, about 1.1% of all retail spending goes to Walmart. Comparatively, the following eight rather large store chains combined had about 2.87 billion in revenue over the same period:
I could go on, but hopefully this gives some food for thought about just how large Walmart is.

Now, I have obviously skipped discussing any of the reasons I am troubled by Walmart, since scale alone is not necessarily a negative. I will likely return to these issues another time. To summarize to the point of near vacuity, but as a hint of my feelings it comes from their corporate practices in dealing with labor and vendors, the macoeconomic impact they have on our trade deficit (not to say Walmart is solely to blame for our trade imbalance, of course), the manner in which they encourage a race to the bottom in product quality in the name of reducing price, and their simply unpleasant merchandising and aesthetics, as long as I'm on a rant.

More to come on these things another time. Enjoy your Memorial Day.
e-mail post | Link Cosmos | [Permalink]  | (19) comments |  | Monday, May 30, 2005

Kinda Makes You Wonder  | e-mail post

Last year, the then-head of the Minnesota Lottery, George Anderson, committed suicide shortly before a probe of the lottery's finances and operations was the be released. At the time, I thought this was pretty unusual. It's one thing for there to be some kind of misfeasance or malfeasance, and entirely another when a public official kills themselves before the report's release.

Well, it seems the lottery has taken another life, or, more accurately, another individual under scrutiny took his own life. The Business Journal reported last Friday on Michael Priesnitz being found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Priesnitz was the founder of Media Rare, a St. Paul advertising-ish

While there is some discussion of poor health in this Star Tribune report, it seems unlikely to me that the suicide would be driven by a person in their mid-50s having a heart attack. Conventional wisdom might suggest that such an event might be more likely to give someone more of a zest for life. It seems more probable that the timing of the suicide could be a result of the lottery investigation getting turned over to Ramsey County attorneys, and, potentially, the impact Priesnitz might have felt from the current owners of Media Rare, who seem to have purchased MR in some sort of earnout arrangement. Given that the lottery was MR's biggest client (and seems to have had the late commissioner Anderson intervene on their behalf regularly), Priesnitz may have felt he wasn't up to the task of explaining things, paying back ill-gotten gains or maybe even spending some time in the clink (which seems unlikely).

All I can say is that I am curious to see the final report of the lottery probe.

Star-Tribune - "A Second Death Among Lottery Probe Subjects"
e-mail post | Link Cosmos | [Permalink]  | (1) comments |  | Monday, May 02, 2005

Travel Travails and Fox's Airport Vice Franchise  | e-mail post

I had to do some travel earlier in the week to visit a client's client down in Lexington. Since NWA doesn't fly direct to Lexington, I had to connect through Detroit. All went well on the trip down, but on my return flight idiocy struck (I did mention I was flying Northwest, so I'm sure you were already expecting some sort of fuckwittage).

The problem came up at the Lexington airport, where my flight was delayed because one of the crew members heard an "unsual noise," which of course prompted the mechanic to check things out, delaying the flight by an hour. Well, I certainly felt safer after having the problem checked out though! It was raining, and the unusual noise was being caused by the "rain equipment," by which I think the pilot meant the wipers. The stewardess who actually admitted (announced, playfully, in fact) that she was the one who heard the noise and said she was concerned.

I don't want to be accused of reinforcing any stereotypes, but the stewardess who was frightened by the wipers was, in fact, blonde. I was not in the sort of mood at the time to ask if it was natural.

Of course, even with NWA's ridiculous schedule padding (giving them a fighting chance of having an on-time arrival even if they take off a half-hour late) I ended up missing my connection and had to hang around the Detroit airport an extra couple of hours. Given the improvements at DTW, however, this was not the worst place to be stranded, especially since you can actually smoke in the airport.

Somewhat surprisingly (to me, anyway), the Fox Sports Bar in DTW is the only place in the airport you can smoke. This struck me as odd, in combination with the fact that the Fox News store in the Minneapolis airport seems to have the largest porn selection of any airport newsstand I've seen (I mean an entire wall of wrapped magazines, it's like a Shinders if you're here in the Twin Cities). I thought Fox was supposed to be the right-wing, conservative family-values network? Porn, smoking, WTF? Do they run "full release" massage shops at some other airports?

Who knows, maybe they've got Bill O'Reily in charge of their airport franchise operations.

If he is, he might want to know that the Fox Sports bar in Detroit was running CNN on the TVs at the bar. I'm guessing employee satisfaction might not be real high.
e-mail post | Link Cosmos | [Permalink]  | (0) comments |  | Saturday, April 30, 2005

The Rapping Cynic  | e-mail post

My friend (previously referred to as Slats Grobnik) e-mailed me this great tidbit from The Guardian today. "Big Mac Rap May Mean Artists' Payday". The basic idea is taking product placements out of the movie and television world and putting them in the recording arts.
Rap artists are accustomed to name-checking prestige car, clothing and jewellery brands in their lyrics. But if McDonald's has its way Snoop Dogg, Jay-Z and 50 Cent may soon be giving it up for the humble beefburger.

The fast-food giant is reported to be launching a campaign that will offer financial incentives to rap artists who mention its Big Mac burger in their lyrics. McDonald's will not pay an upfront fee, but intends to pay the artist between $1 and $5 (53p-£2.68) each time a track is played on the radio. It hopes to have several such songs on the airwaves by the summer.

Walt Riker, a spokesman for McDonald's in the US, said the initiative would be conducted by the US marketing firm Maven Strategies, which last year managed to get Seagram's gin mentioned in five rap songs.
I have a number of thoughts on this, as a business and marketing concept. But I am posting because the thought inspired me to bust a rhyme, as they say:
I'm not a musician, just a hack
Using my rhymes to pimp the big mac

It’s got a beef patty and some cheese
Smell that sauce wafting in the breeze

My bitches they love the sesame bun
I say I got your beef right here, hun.

e-mail post | Link Cosmos | [Permalink]  | (1) comments |  | Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Would It Really Be So Difficult?  | e-mail post

I really enjoy movies. I went and saw Constantine last night, on which an old college friend (and fellow blogger at Deliberate Cinema) worked. It reminded me that I still have not seen The Machinist, which I would love to see, but I apparently will have to wait for it to come out on DVD. Why? I think there are one of two possible reasons:

1) It has not and will not be shown in my small rural community (Minneapolis, metro population 3.35 million) with little knowledge of or regard for the arts (even though we have more stage theaters per capita than NYC).

2) It was here briefly, but after its limited release in NY/LA, and I missed seeing an ad or showtimes for it (including a periodic check on Yahoo! showtimes)

If it was the latter, I would be very surprised. I visited the main website for the film, I tried to find a schedule of release dates by city (the similarly limited release film Memento did provide this, so I could actually plan to see it the day it opened here in town).

I simply do not understand why smaller filmmakers do not invest in the fairly simple website enhancement of noting their scheduled releases. I understand they didn't make 5,000 prints of the film so it could saturate every multiplex in America with staggered showings every 15 minutes. But since they didn't make as many, why not have the scheduled releases available, just in case there might be one or two souls in the 2,500 miles of land between NY and LA.

Now it is possible that they simply never bothered releasing it outside of the NY/LA area. If that's the case, that problem is really a separate one. But, at least update the website to say: if you haven't seen it, you can't until June 2005, when it comes out on DVD. It is almost as if the filmmakers don't want people to see the film.

If anyone knows of a site (fansites even) that keeps track of release dates by city for limited release films, I would love to know.

It is indeed a sad irony that bad films are so easy to find and good ones so difficult.
e-mail post | Link Cosmos | [Permalink]  | (4) comments |  | Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Just Like Cops...  | e-mail post

....there's never a suicide bomber around when you could really use one.

While the King of Pop has his own media circus going on out west, France is doing a mass prosecution of 66 pedophiles for sex crimes against 45 children ranging from 6 months(!) to 14 years of age.

More information via the BBC.

Ironically, the trial is taking place in a town named "Angers"...kind of appropriate, as the whole thought of this does kind of piss me off.

Note: To those who were concerned I fell off the planet, I have been busy with many things. I will try to get back to posting regularly again, although I would suggest that shorter posts will be the norm for the next several weeks.
e-mail post | Link Cosmos | [Permalink]  | (1) comments |  | Thursday, March 03, 2005

Spitzer Throwing Hat In Ring - Hardly Surprising  | e-mail post

It appears NY Attorney General Eliot Spitzer will be announcing his candidacy for Governor of New York. [Reuters via Yahoo] This should come as a surprise to exactly no one. Obviously, one would presume he has had this on his mind for a while. After all, he did run on a platform of cleaning up state government but apparently figured that getting buried back in the "State News" section or only making the front page in Albany just wasn't going to let him advance at the pace he wanted.

Of course, Spitzer's work at "cleaning up" Wall Street certainly offers a great political launching pad. Taking on big corporations, especially when their dealings are questionable, is one of those motherhood and apple pie elements of what we prize here in America. But more than that is the incredible name recognition he has been able to develop. Most news-aware people around the country know the NY AG. How many other attorneys general from states other than your own can you name? Think about what his name recognition must look like in New York.

A quick visit to GoogleFight tells the story of the value of all that press:
Keep in mind, Spitzer was elected in 1998. Pataki's in his third term as Governor. Great news coverage.

BTW, for some other fun GoogleFight stats including Good versus Evil and Rational Discourse versus Ranting and Raving, see "As I Expected"

e-mail post | Link Cosmos | [Permalink]  | (2) comments |  | Tuesday, December 07, 2004

The Blogosphere Just Got Smarter  | e-mail post

I was alerted by Powerline to the new blog from Richard Posner and Gary Becker. Becker is a Nobel-winning economist and Posner is a federal judge, and for years was a leader (the leader, arguably) of the law and economics school of jurisprudence at Chicago. These are very powerful minds and the fact that they will be blogging is everyone's good fortune.

I agree with Deacon's comment on Powerline, that their subject this week, preventative war, is too easy for the pair. [Posner's Essay] [Becker's Essay] Posner sums up the economic analysis of preventative war, such as in the case of Iraq:

while the probability of a future attack is always less than one, the expected cost of the future attack-the cost that the attack will impose multiplied by the probability of the attack-may be very high, perhaps because the adversary is growing stronger and so will be able to deliver a heavier blow in the future than he could do today. It may be possible to neutralize his greater strength, but that will require a greater investment in defense. Suppose there is a probability of .5 that the adversary will attack at some future time, when he has completed a military build up, that the attack will, if resisted with only the victim's current strength, inflict a cost on the victim of 100, so that the expected cost of the attack is 50 (100 x .5), but that the expected cost can be reduced to 20 if the victim incurs additional defense costs of 15. Suppose further that at an additional cost of only 5, the victim can by a preventive strike today eliminate all possibility of the future attack. Since 5 is less than 35 (the sum of injury and defensive costs if the future enemy attack is not prevented), the preventive war is cost-justified.
Becker's counterpoint is...well, there is no counterpoint, he basically lays out a similar claim, concluding:
The degree of certainty required before preventive actions are justified has been considerably reduced below what it was in the past because the destructive power of weaponry has enormously increased. Perhaps most worrisome, the power of weapons continues to grow, and to become more easily accessible. Critics of preventive wars and other preventive actions against rogue states and terrorist groups ignore these major changes in weaponry and their availability. Democratic governments have to recognize that they no longer have the luxury of waiting to respond until they are attacked.
I am cautiously optimistic about the blog. The fact that it is highly unlikely that Posner and Becker will spar intellectually with one another is a disappointment, but is of course expected given their shared philosophical beliefs. However, while lively debate between two great minds only improves discourse, Becker and Posner have such crisp minds and extensive thought on the issues of economics in social policy that even if the editorial theme is "yeah, what he said," I suspect we will be treated to regularly flashes of brilliance.

If you're curious for my probability-based rationale for our actions in Iraq, read my "Pragmatic Reason for Invading Iraq," which I would expand upon today, but still reflects my main hypotheses and analysis of the reason for this war.


Further Reading from Posner and Becker

If you are curious to read some of the work from these great minds, I can recommend Posner's The Problem of Jurisprudence, if you enjoy fairly dense reading, and ideally have a working vocabulary in economics, philosophy or the law. Possibly more important, however, is The Economics of Justice, the work that cranked up the law and economics movement in the U.S. when Posner published it back in 1981.

The old saying about seeing farther because one is standing on the shoulders of giants might apply to Posner. His work was heavily influenced by Becker's 1978 The Economic Approach to Human Behavior, in which Becker argues that economics can explain a great deal, from consumer behavior to marriage to altruism. Of more interest is his collection of essays from BusinessWeek: The Economics of Life: From Baseball to Affirmative Action to Immigration, How Real-World Issues Affect Our Everyday Life.

I haven't read it (it came out in 2003), but it sounds interesting: Becker's Social Economics: Market Behavior in a Social Environment. According to Amazon, the book address "many puzzling phenomena, including patterns of drug use, how love affects marriage patterns, neighborhood segregation, the prices of fine art and other collectibles, the social side of trademarks, the rise and fall of fads and fashions, and the distribution of income and status." If there is an entirely rational explanation for fads and fashion, Becker deserves another Nobel prize.

The law and economics discussion reminded me of a book I will recommend for an overview of both the law and economics theory as well as some broader theories of jurisprudence. The book is Yale professor Jules Coleman's Markets, Morals and the Law. I was dumbfounded when I first went to Amazon, as the first listing it produced for the book was out-of-print. Fortunately, it is still in circulation in softcover. When I read Markets almost 15 years ago in a tort theory class, I thought it was outstanding, and it also made clear why Jules Coleman was on course to be one of the preeminent minds in jurisprudence.

As an aside: when I first studied law and economics I thought it was an excellent descriptive theory but felt uncomfortable with it as a normative theory (that is, it was accurate, but I didn't think it was right). I was more of a Kantian with a view of justice that was not reducible to economics. Today, I believe in law and economics as both an effective mental model for description, as well as good guidance in much of law and social policy.
e-mail post | Link Cosmos | [Permalink]  | (2) comments |  | Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Jury on WTC Insurance: Two planes = two events  | e-mail post

I was under the impression that, in general, juries are "triers of fact," while judges apply, and as necessary, interpret, the law. So I guess I was a little confused when I read the article about a federal jury determining that for purpose of the payouts with nine insurers, the WTC attack was two separate events (two planes, after all). [WSJ] [Reuters via FT] Needless to say, this will have a material impact on the final insurance payments that insurers will pay and Larry Silverstein, the site's leaseholder will collect.

In May, another jury found that in the case of the WTC's coverage from Swiss Re, the terrorist attack was a single event, an "occurence or series of occurences." [Insurance Journal] They had similar findings for eight other insurers in a case in late April. There was some discussion in the Swiss Re trial as to whether or not Swiss Re was aware of or accepted the coverage change from the Willis Property (Wilprop) form to the Travelers form. I can see some jury involvement in the question of fact: whether there had been the requisite offer, acceptance and consideration components of a contract. Apparently, in the Travelers form, the word "occurence" was not specfically defined, thus leaving the door open for multiple claims. The insurance defendants in the case decided today were all under the Travelers form.

I was surprised this was a jury trial, although this could be due to ignorance, as I have almost no information about the case (it certainly wasn't fighting the Peterson trial for coverage). If the decision hinged on what the terms of the Travelers form meant, it would seem that this would be something a matter of contract interpretation and would rely primarily on the prior intepretation of such language, relevant regulation or legislation and possibly the common law tradition, if it came down to that; these things would seem to be questions of law, not of fact.

So I guess the question I have is what was the role of the jury involved in this decision? I am curious what the jury instructions were; what exactly they were being asked to decide. On its face, it just confuses me that a jury, particularly when one considers the typical make up of a jury, is deciding what would seem to be a fairly legalistic and linguistic matter. Not to mention the issue that in the absence of definitive language to the contrary, wouldn't a jury of New Yorkers have some potential bias in favor of an increased award to the WTC leaseholder who is rebuilding the site? (And it's hard not to feel bad for Silverstein, given he signed the lease for the WTC about 6 weeks before it was destroyed.)

I did go to the Southern District of NY Court subsite for September 11th-related litigation, however they have not posted any updates for today's decision.

If anyone knows and could briefly define the situation (or point me to a link that would address this), I would appreciate it.

e-mail post | Link Cosmos | [Permalink]  | (0) comments |  | Monday, December 06, 2004

Scorecard Update: Snow to Go; Treasury Needs a Pitchman  | e-mail post

john snow
Apparently nothing to smile about. Snow just doesn't look like a salesman. Internet treasure hunt: try to find a picture with John Snow smiling.
Time to update the scorecard as Treasury Secretary John Snow's gotta go, according to the Bush administration. [NY Times] That's understandable, given that Bush's man at Treasury is going to have one hell of a sales job, explaining why everyone should be comfortable financing a trillion or two to manage the whole Social Security privatization process. [Reuters via Yahoo]

It's got to be tough being a Republican Treasury Secretary when you have a president like Bush, who has thrown the whole ideological social and economic orthdoxy of Republicanism is out the window. I'm not saying this to be negative. It's just that when you have serious tax cuts and a war contributing to deficit spending, it makes you wonder about fiscal restraint. Of course, wars almost always mean deficit spending and the tax cuts are good economic sense for stimulating an economy. However, especially in such financial circumstances, you wouldn't normally also see a Republican President championing something like the Medicare drug benefit, itself a trillion-dollar program.

That's why the rumors that Bush's Chief of Staff, Andrew Card, could be a possible successor to the post seem reasonable. It would certainly fit the current approach of drawing on insiders for the cabinet positions. The other thing is that Card is a true believer in Bush, and the most important thing in any sales job is believing, sometimes as an article of faith, of the value of what you are selling. This means adding a Card to Bush's hand could prove a real boon when it comes to the showdown over the privatization process.

Here's the updated from Saturday's scorecard of the Bush cabinet:

.
PostOriginalCurrentFuture
Chief of Staff
Andy Card
Agriculture Ann Veneman
Mike Johanns
Commerce
Don Evans
Carlos Gutierrez
Defense
Donald Rumsfeld
Education
Rod Paige
Margaret Spellings
Energy
Spencer Abraham
?? (MSNBC with some ideas)
Health & Human Services
Tommy Thompson
Mark McClellan (speculated)
Housing & Urban Development
Mel Martinez
Alphonso Jackson
Interior
Gale Norton
Justice
John Ashcroft
Alberto Gonzalez
Labor
Elaine Chao
Homeland Security
Tom Ridge
Bernard Kerik
State
Colin Powell
Condaleeza Rice
Transportation
Norman Mineta
Treasury
Paul O'Neill
John Snow
?? (Andy Card?)
Veterans Affairs
Anthony Principi
Environmental Protection
Christine Whitman Mike Leavitt
U.S. Trade Representative
Robert Zoellick
Office of Mgmt & Budget
Joshua Bolton
Drug Czar
John Walters




e-mail post | Link Cosmos | [Permalink]  | (0) comments |  | Monday, December 06, 2004

The U.N. in the News  | e-mail post

Busy times with the U.N. lately. Coleman calls for Kofi Annan's resignation, Danforth resigns from the U.N. ambassadorship for "personal reasons", and last Friday, outgoing Secretary of State Colin Powell provided a slight endorsement of Kofi Annan, calling him a "good" Secretary General. [Reuters via Yahoo]

Over the weekend, the Bostin Globe's Jeff Jacoby ("Annan is a symptom of UN's sickness...") and Thomas Oliphant ("...No, he's a scapegoat") had a face-off in the Sunday paper. While Jacoby might go the slightest bit overboard, he is much closer to the truth than the willfully ignorant Oliphant.

It can be argued that Coleman may be overreaching both on his evidence and given his position as a junior Senator from a state with two first-term Senators. (Possibly since Annan's undergraduate degree is from Macalaster College in the Twin Cities, Coleman has additional authority.) Seriously, however, possible charges of grandstanding by Coleman can't be ruled out (he was obviously anxious for the high-profile post of leading the Republican Senatorial Committee which he lost to Elizabeth Dole by a single vote).

However, even if one presumes Coleman's motives are misplaced, the net result is a positive one: by creating a buzz by calling for Annan's resignation, Coleman has at least brought the Oil-for-Food scandal into the core of news reporting this past week, rather than languishing on page 2 or 3, if it makes the paper at all. The fact that this subject has been horribly underreported given just the magnitude and nature of corruption within a U.N. program, let alone the impact the corruption may have had on the conduct of foreign policy over the past two or more years.

The Canada Fress Press today looks into Paul Volker's possible conflict of interest as Kofi Annan's handpicked lead investigator. When I started to read the article, I almost abandoned it when the author mentioned the conspiracy theorist stape of Volker's membership in the Trilateral Commission. Most humourous is that when mentioning the Trilateral Comission, readers are referred to LizMichael.com, with headlines such as "Is George Bush the Antichrist?" (unintentionally hilarious) and "Did Israel execute the 9-11 act of war against America?"

In any event, the CFP author (correctly) glosses by the conspiracy bait into a much more legitimate conflict of interest claim: the possible relationship between Volker and a major shareholder in TotalFinaElf, a French petroleum company that is a subject in some of these investigations:
Lesser known is that Volcker has held a seat on Power Corporation’s international advisory board.

Wealthy Canadian businessman and Power Corporation founder, Paul Desmarais Sr. is a major shareholder and director in TotalFinaElf, the largest oil corporation in France, which has held tens of billions of dollars in contracts with the deposed regime of Saddam Hussein.

France has been identified as one of the chief partners-in-corruption in the scandal. The Times of London calculated that French and Russian companies cashed in on $11-billion worth of business from oil-for-food between 1996 and 2003.
In some respects, these sorts of guilt-by-association plays are troubling to me. When I think about my own membership in organizations, I can certainly say that my membership wouldn't prevent me from honestly assessing other members, although it could be argued that my familiarity with them would bias me. However, it is difficult to find individuals holding the stature of Paul Volker (or James Baker, for example), and to expect those people to be anything less than extremely well-connected in the hallways of power seems absurd. In the end, you can only trust old, rich and powerful guys to do the right thing because they're too rich to be bought off, too powerful to be harmed and too old to care what happens. (And maybe old enough that their sense of mortality encourages them to behave justly.)

Certainly, however, Volker's measured and very tight-lipped approach to the investigation is running the risk of him appearing as obstructing the U.S. investigations, so I wonder if we can expect Coleman and Levin to look into these sorts of concerns.


e-mail post | Link Cosmos | [Permalink]  | (4) comments |  | Monday, December 06, 2004

Kojeve's Latin Empire and Contemporary French Foreign Policy  | e-mail post

I just finished one of the most interesting and though-provoking pieces of writing I've read in recent memory. It is the English translation of French philosopher Alexandre Kojève's "Outline of a Doctrine of French Policy." The translation is from the August '04 issue of Policy Review, the Hoover Institution's journal. The issue also includes an essay, "Kojève's Latin Empire," by Robert Howse of Michigan. The editors introduction describes the piece accurately when it describes it as having, "scholarly, historical, philosophical, and-perhaps most startlingly-contemporary interest."

It's an amazing piece of writing, as it written from an intelligent and pragmatic point of view of a Frenchman immediately after World War II. The events of the prior war made it clear to Kojève that France could no longer exist in a truly autonomous fashion, the age of nations giving way to the age of empires, represented by the bipolar Anglo-American empire and the Slavo-Soviet empire. Kojève believed that ultimately, due to a distrust of Slavs and Protestant religious background, Germany would end up as part of the Anglo-American empire. Also, no matter what Germany does, Kojève sees defense against the idea of a rearmed Germany of critical importance.

For both these reasons, he envisions that the way for France to maintain her defense and political stature is to be the first among equals, pater inter pares, within a Latin Empire formed with Spain and Italy. One could say it is a big fish in a small pond strategy, but give him credit for being practical about how to maintain France's obviously diminished political stature.

The goal of Kojève's empire would be one not of expansion, but of protection, and hopefully peace in Europe, by maintaining a role of neutrality. He envisions that the Latin empire, not able to compete economically or politically (by which Kojève tends to mean militarily), will lead the world in the field in perfecting leisure and enjoying the sweetness of living. This is a great passage:
Generally speaking, the differences of the national characters cannot mask the fundamental unity of the Latin "mentality," which is all the more striking to strangers for often going unrecognized by the Latin people themselves. It is, to be sure, difficult to define this mentality, but it can immediately be seen that it is unique, among its type, in its deep unity. It seems that this mentality is specifically characterized by that art of leisure which is the source of art in general, by the aptitude for creating this "sweetness of living" which has nothing to do with material comfort, by that "dolce far niente" itself which degenerates into pure laziness only if it does not follow a productive and fertile labor (to which the Latin Empire will give birth through the sole fact of its existence).

This shared mentality - which entails a profound sense of beauty generally (and especially in France) associated with a very distinct sense of proportion and which thus permits the transformation of simple "bourgeois" well-being into aristocratic "sweetness" of living and the frequent elevation to delight of pleasures which, in another setting, would be (and are, in most cases) "vulgar" pleasures - this mentality not only assures the Latin people of their real - that is to say political and economic - union. It also, in a way, justifies this union in the eyes of the world and of History. Of the world, for if the two other imperial Unions will probably always be superior to the Latin Union in the domain of economic work and of political struggles, one is entitled to suppose that they will never know how to devote themselves to the perfection of their leisure as could, under favorable circumstances, the unified Latin West; and of History, for by supposing that national and social conflicts will definitely be eliminated some day (which is perhaps less distant than is thought), it must be admitted that it is precisely to the organization and the "humanization" of its free time that future humanity will have to devote its efforts. (Did Marx himself not say, in repeating, without realizing it, a saying of Aristotle's: that the ultimate motive of progress, and thus of socialism, is the desire to ensure a maximum of leisure for man?)
Kojève's imperial vision of africa

If the article piques your curiousity about 20th century European political history, there is a fantastic site for exploring it: the MCE European Navigator. It provides an enormous amount of information in a very unique and highly functional Flash interface. The documentary section provides a great overview of the various periods of postwar history in Europe, and the multimedia library has all kinds of maps, documents, treaties, photos, even original news articles (many with English translations). It's really quite an impressive site, both in content and execution.

I sketched the map of how Africa would be carved up in Kojève's imperial vision from the Navigator's map of colonial empires in Africa (1920).
Apparently, since the French are perfecting the sweet life, and because Kojève recognizes political expansion of the empire would be impossible, he sees the need to maintain the current colonial holdings, even lobbying the Allies for the return of Italy's North African colonies. In fact, in Kojève's mind, the colonies are the key to the empire.
It is the Empire as such which must establish a unique plan for colonial exploitation and provide all the means necessary for its realization. And it is also the Empire as a whole which must benefit from the advantages resulting from this joint effort of planning thought and organized work. All in all, it is the economic unity of the continuous bloc of the African possessions which must be the real basis and the unifying principle of the Latin Empire.
While Kojève does see control of Mediterranean as a critical strategic control point for the Latin empire, he also sees the empire as somewhat economically isolated (partially by design), relying largely on an ever-increasing consumer population, accelerated by an improved standard of living (and presumably those well-proven Catholic birth control practices):
This economy, for its part, would enable the standard of living in the future to rise in the whole Empire, which is to say, above all, in Spain and in southern Italy. By improving the material conditions of existence in these regions, we will undoubtedly see a sharp increase in the demographic curve in the coming decades. And this continuous (and, in principle, unlimited) extension of the domestic market, accompanied by ever-increasing employment, would allow the imperial economy to develop while avoiding the inevitable cyclical crises of the Anglo-Saxon economy, with its practically saturated domestic market, as well as the rigid and oppressive stability of the Soviet economy.
There are some great lines, including some wonderful displays of French pride, or shall we say arrogance; but at the same time Kojève is critical in the way only a patriot can be when he discusses the challenges of forming such an empire:
But it will be, without any doubt, very difficult to transform this general idea into a concrete "project" and to make it into the goal and the motor of a "realist" French policy.

This is, first of all, because of a very widespread anti-Latin prejudice which is probably nothing more than a camouflaged form of this "inferiority complex," sometimes "overcompensated," from which France is beginning to suffer.
Kojève's comments about "leftist intellectuals" are particularly choice, when he discusses how to enlist the support the French Resistance in building support in France for the Latin empire.
This choice is all the more necessary insofar as this movement monopolized, by force of circumstance, many fundamentally nihilistic elements called "leftist intellectuals" for whom nonconformity has an absolute value instead of being a sometimes necessary, but always regrettable, consequence of a concrete constructive will. These fundamentally anti-statist elements would have to be restricted to the literary domain which belongs to them alone, and from which they have escaped only because of chance events.
In many ways, Kojève's member of the literary domain made me think of all the celebrities who inject themselves into the political discourse, with very little political understanding or sophistication, but to simply be fashionable.

I found the entire piece interesting and relevant, by giving a flavor of the thinking at the time as well as considering how some of the thinking has informed French foreign policy and the creation of various European entities, beginning with the council of Europe and culminating with the EU. In many ways, the EU would seem to be the grandest realization of Kojève's vision, but France's status is diminished in the EU, as Kojève couldn't have imagined Germany becoming part of a pan-European empire and England's odd role of being in multiple "empires" (the British Commonwealth alone is 56 nations [map]).

I would suggest reading this in light of pieces on current French politics and foreign policy as well, like this piece from next week's New Republic [subscription required]. In addition, the focus on religion, nationality and culture as key bonds for the Latin empire may explain the difficulty Turkey is having trying to join the EU [Turkish Press].

It's interesting to imagine a world in which Kojève's vision had been realized. I strongly suggest giving this a read if you have any interest in philosophy, European history or contemporary European foreign policy, as well as to develop an understanding of just how different, and yet at times not so different, French thought about the world can be.


e-mail post | Link Cosmos | [Permalink]  | (1) comments |  | Saturday, December 04, 2004

Scorecard, Scorecard...Can't Tell the Players Without a Scorecard  | e-mail post

If you just want a quick guide to the changes in the Bush cabinet since the start of his first term, and now with Tommy Thompson becoming the eighth cabinet change since before the election. I've included the extended cabinet, not just the main Secretaries.

PostOriginalCurrentFuture
Chief of Staff
Andy Card
Agriculture Ann Veneman
Mike Johanns
Commerce
Don Evans
Carlos Gutierrez
Defense
Donald Rumsfeld
Education
Rod Paige
Margaret Spellings
Energy
Spencer Abraham
?? (MSNBC with some ideas)
Health & Human Services
Tommy Thompson
Mark McClellan (speculated)
Housing & Urban Development
Mel Martinez
Alphonso Jackson
Interior
Gale Norton
Justice
John Ashcroft
Alberto Gonzalez
Labor
Elaine Chao
Homeland Security
Tom Ridge
Bernard Kerik
State
Colin Powell
Condaleeza Rice
Transportation
Norman Mineta
Treasury
Paul O'Neill
John Snow
Veterans Affairs
Anthony Principi
Environmental Protection
Christine Whitman Mike Leavitt
U.S. Trade Representative
Robert Zoellick
Office of Mgmt & Budget
Joshua Bolton
Drug Czar
John Walters


e-mail post | Link Cosmos | [Permalink]  | (0) comments |  | Saturday, December 04, 2004

Outstanding Creation Mythology Site  | e-mail post

I don't normally post just to pass along links, but I stumbled across the MythicJourneys.org site "The Big Myth." Geared probably toward children, it is a really quite interesting overview of a variety of cultures' creation mythology. It's done with Flash, and has voiceovers to accompany all of the written text as well. The narrator has the appropriate solemnity for the material. Even though it is geared towards kids, since it covers 25 cultures, there's probably some fascinating trivia for everyone.

For example, I was not aware that in the Babylonian mythology, the creator of the universe is (interestingly enough) a third-generation god who went on to become the Sun and man was created so the gods wouldn't have eternal labor..people would do the work. Nor did I know that the west African Yoruba culture believes that the lands, mountains and valleys, were largely formed by a hen pecking at an enormous pile of sand.

If you have kids or are a teacher, you can also order Big Myth on CD.


e-mail post | Link Cosmos | [Permalink]  | (0) comments |  | Saturday, December 04, 2004

One Positive Aspect of 'JFK Reloaded'  | e-mail post

I am assuming most readers have heard of JFK Reloaded when it was launched a couple of weeks ago. If not, it is a simulation (some would say a game) that allows you to reenact the events in Dealey Plaza on November 22, 1963. You play Oswald, or multiple shooters, placed in different locations, including the proverbial grassy knoll. As an aside, I'm surprised no Democrats have claimed Karl Rove was in the grassy knoll, they seem to have become very fond of conspiracies, but particularly those in which Karl Rove plays the central part.

There has been a fair amount of negative press about the game, with many commenting that the most disturbing thing being the $100,000 cash prize for most accurately positioning the gunman (or gunmen) and timing the shots in the way to most closely reproduces the bullet paths with injuries and car damage consistent with forensic findings as well as visually matching the Zapruder film.

Now, I understand how such an offer can make people squeamish; I certainly would agree it seems in poor taste, and one can hardly criticize Ted Kennedy for being appalled. However, when I was listening to a criticism of the game on MPR last weekend, the obvious benefit struck me: with all the "second gunman" conspiracies people have put forward (and maintained) about the assassination, this prize gives a fairly strong economic incentive for somebody to prove that it's possible that someone other than Oswald did it, and that he did it alone.
Zapruder Film Trivia
Zapruder's Bell & Howell camera and the film are in the National Archives, though Zapruder originally sold the film to Life magazine for $50,000. Life sold it back to them for $1 and it was given to the Archives for restoration, but the family kept the rights.

Here's the portion of the story that raises my cynicism level. In 1997, the U.S. government declared the film a public record and took custody. An arbitration panel was established to determine the compensation for the film only the actual film itself; the Zapruder family continues to have reproduction and royalty rights). While the government initially proposed a million dollars, the family wanted about $30 million, as they claimed they could get that at private auction. The panel ultimately awarded them about $16 million. [CNN]


If you visit the site, and look at the screenshots and read about the program, you'll see that it is a simulation, not a game. It certainly doesn't seem like it would be "fun." I've played enough first-person shooter games with the sniper rifle, and while that can be fun, playing the sniper in JFK Reloaded would feel more like being Groundhog Day at Dealey Plaza, with an Oswald having to duplicate his exact shots before being allowed for time to start again. It seems like it would be interesting in a forensics, ballistics, math and ballistics sort of way, not in a typical gaming sort of way. The simulation appears to be of an extremely high quality with respect to simulating all the physics and physiology involved with the siting, aiming , and firing of the rifle as well as the travel of the bullet through the air, people and cars.

If there really was a second gunman, I find it difficult to believe that someone will not be able to closely, if not precisely, define the set of shooters and shots that would be consistent with the evidence. Of course, conspiracy theorists still have (at least) two outs. Anybody who has maintained a pet second gunman theory for this long will be loathe to give it up; just as repeated scientific dating hasn't changed some people's opinion about the true provenance of Shroud of Turin, it has only forced them to adapt their theories. The simplest out is that the game is a poor simulation, but this is verifiable, and I think would be found to be false; it appears fairly robust with a clearly documented set of assumptions. The more bold version is that the simulation, while sound in all respects has been specially coded to inaccurately simulate shot patterns that could contradict orthodox beliefs. This seems unlikely, but so does the whole second gunman theory. The second unique possibility is that the forensic evidence is inaccurate. Both of these additional machinations required for the conspiracy theory to hold water diminish its strength to the casual observer. Of course, I will acknowledge that you can't prove a negative, so there is always the slightest logical possibility that these people could be right, just as NASA might have faked the moon landing and the Holocaust may have just been Zionist PR. I'm going to stick with the orthodoxy on all three things though.

So, the good news about the game is that it should either help to demonstrate the possibility that there was someone other than Oswald, or it may force a group of the conspiracy theorists who have based their beliefs on a second gunman to let go of their fantasy and accept the orthodoxy, or find a new conspiracy.

Either way, if it even stops one more assassination conspiracy book from being written, it will be an intellectual and environmental victory.

Also on the Kennedy subject, there was an interesting piece in the Op-Ed section of the Star Tribune last week suggesting that Kennedy's vanity and need to appear youthful and healthy may have been his demise. Biographer James Reston Jr describes information he came across while researching his biography of then-governor of Texas John Connally: Kennedy probably would have lived had he not been wearing his corset, a steel-rodded backbrace he wore to maintain his posture and reduce his back pain.
Apart from the never-ending controversy over how many bullets Lee Harvey Oswald actually fired from the Texas School Book Depository, most experts agree with the Warren Commission that Oswald's first bullet passed cleanly through Kennedy's lower neck, missing any bone, then entered Connally's back, streaking through the governor's body and lodging in his thigh. This was the first so-called magic bullet.

When Connally was hit, he pivoted in pain to his left, his lithe body in motion as it swiveled downward, ending up in the lap of his wife, Nellie.

But because of the corset, Kennedy's body did not act as a normal body would when the bullet passed through his throat. Held by his back brace, Kennedy remained upright, according to the Warren Commission, for five more seconds. This provided Oswald the opportunity to reload and shoot again at an almost stationary target.

The frames of the Zapruder film confirm this ramrod posture: Kennedy's head turns only slightly in those eternal seconds, and his upper body almost not at all, from frame 225 (when the first shot entered his neck) to the fatal frame of 313.

Without the corset, the force of the first bullet, traveling at a speed of 2,000 feet a second, would surely have driven the president's body forward, making him writhe in pain like Connally, and probably down in the seat of his limousine, beyond the view of Oswald's cross hairs for a second or third shot.

With no bones struck and the spinal cord intact, the president almost certainly would have survived the wound from the first bullet.
I don't know if the JFK Reloaded simulation takes account of the corset. I don't recall seeing it mentioned in any FAQs.

e-mail post | Link Cosmos | [Permalink]  | (4) comments |  | Friday, December 03, 2004

Random Friday  | e-mail post

German Condoms

German condom "superstore" Vinico: size matters. According to their study only 18% of German men wear a properly-sized condom, with 34% buying too large and the balance buying too small. [Reuters via Yahoo] One British site gives the story a more insulting headline.

Sparked by the article, I actually visited the Vinico website. Quite a selection...I think my favorite was the "Pullit." Judging from the translation, it uses some kind of mechanism (a latch?) to "unreel" in just one second. (Insert your own premature ejaculation joke here.) Of course, its real purpose is to prevent the loss of "sexual momentum" as the manufacturer puts it. Needless to say, this only encouraged another Google search, taking me to at the official Pullit site, complete with a video demonstration of the Pullit in action. You must watch the video, only for the Mannheim Steamroller meets Wide World of Sports music that makes the thing pretty funny.

The Gray Lady Aiding the Black Market

The New York Times is providing practical guidance for aspiring car thieves with "Top 10 Ways to Steal a Car (and how to defend against them)."

Movie Physics

The folks at Intuitor have put together a movie physics rating guide. They also have reviews of a few movies. My favorite bit from my cursory read is for The Matrix, I just lved this bit:

We could go on with minor criticisms of simulated events but our chief objection is not the simulation. We just can't buy the explanation of why the computer system bothers to maintain not only the simulation but humanity. Supposedly, the computer system needs people as a power source. This makes no sense. The food fed to humans would have far more energy content than the meager power available from humans. It would require even more energy to run the food delivery system not to mention maintain the slime tubs. Why would the machines bother? Surely there'd be a more effective way to extract energy from the food. But wait! It gets worse. Liquefied dead humans are fed back to the living ones. The movie comes dangerously close to implying that the computer/energy system is a giant perpetual motion machine. This is clearly impossible according to the second law of thermodynamics and likewise impossible for us to dismiss lightly.

To cover itself, the movie throws in a quick mention that the human energy source powering the machines is combined with a source of fusion. This is like getting on a 747 and having the captain explain in great detail that the plane is rubber band powered, then add that it also has four jet engines. Guess which power source gets it off the ground, duh.


Speaking of The Matrix, you can preorder The Ultimate Matrix Collection at Amazon. It's ten DVDs of Matrixy-goodness (but given that Reloaded, and especially Revolutions were pretty weak...) It does include The Animatrix, a collection of 9 animated shorts set in the Matrix mythology. I strongly recommend the Animatrix, it has a good variety of animation styles and some decent stories to showcase them. Buy it separately if you don't feel like spending $55-60 on the 10 DVD pack. (On the other hand, can you go wrong at $5.50 per DVD?)

Biblical "Science"

On the subject of science, if you are appalled, as I am, at the assault some groups are making on science education, you may get a kick out of some parody textbook stickers, mocking the actual stickers the Cobb County board of education put on textbooks. My only complaint about the parody stickers is that they do imply Bush's disbelief in evolution, something that as an avowed non-literalist when it comes to the Bible, is extremely unlikely. (But I'm not going to rant about the unfair characterization).

On the other hand, if you believe, as some do, that dinosaurs could be better known as Jesus' horses, then you might want to plan a family trip to Dinosaur Adventureland. They have all kinds of great exhibits, like the creation of earth in six days (although I don't know if it accounts for the somewhat conflicting creation story of Genesis 2)and evidence of man and dinosaurs living together (I think this is a "there be dragons" argument).

By the way...why aren't dinosaurs mentioned in the Bible? They mention "great lizards" like the monitor lizard, but no dinosaurs. Maybe the movie-reviewing physicists should make a roadtrip to Dinosaur Adventureland.

[Thanks to Slats for the parody stickers and Dinosaur Adventureland links.]
e-mail post | Link Cosmos | [Permalink]  | (37) comments |  | Friday, December 03, 2004

David Brooks Interview on MPR  | e-mail post

New York Times columnist David Brooks is in the Twin Cities today. He'll be speaking at the University of St Thomas in St Paul tonight [info] (tickets are $20, with a discount for MPR members). His topic this evening is the polarization in America.

While he was in town he was over at MPR studios for an interview an call in on Midday with Mike Mulcahy. Brooks is my kind of conservative, and I wish there were more like him. You can listen to the interview and call from MPR's website. He talks at the beginning of the show on the topic of polarization. Much as I argued in my "Thoughts on Our 'Divided America'" piece from a few days ago, he doesn't feel there is an issues divide, but that it is divide about leadership and personality.

Many of his comments mirrored things I mentioned in my post, including the self-imposed segmentation of people into homogenous groups such that they really don't know people with differing views. ("People are really good at finding people like themselves, and they move there.") He observed that since more of our jobs are "information jobs" and are not tied to specific locations people are more able to move to these homogenous areas of people "like themselves." That is not something I had thought about as a causal factor, but it makes sense and doesn't portend a good prognosis for interaction.

He also talks about the selection of media that reinforce our opinions rather than forcing us to confront and wrestle with differing opinions, and how doing so promotes a sort of "mental flabbiness," an idea with which I completely agree. This is why I, as a conservative, get more of my news from MPR and the NYT, rather than Fox (never) or the WSJ (usually more for business news). This is something I mentioned in passing in my post, but plan on expanding upon in a larger post looking at some 2004 Pew media consumption research, which does indicate that people do have a tendency to select their media for reinforcement of news.

I wasn't able to catch all of the interview/call-in, but plan to listen to the rest of it this evening.

e-mail post | Link Cosmos | [Permalink]  | (0) comments |  | Thursday, December 02, 2004

The Real Problem with United Nations Corruption  | e-mail post

President Bush has called for a full and open investigation into the United Nations' administration of the Iraq Oil-for-Food program, although he didn't go as far as Norm Coleman in asking for Annan's resignation. Actually, I think Bush was fairly diplomatic about it all things considered. [Reuters via Yahoo]

I'm not sure if he was just being diplomatic when he said: "In order for the taxpayers of the United States to feel comfortable about supporting the United Nations, there has to be an open accounting," or if he really believes that is the big issue. Certainly U.S. support for the U.N. has always been a bugaboo for many on the right.

I personally feel this is less about the financial support and more about whether a potentially corrupt institution can claim any moral authority in encouraging or restraining nations to act in the foreign policy arena. Put another way, the complaint baseball team owners would have about umpires being paid off by the Yankees (only for sake of example) is not that they were also contributing to the umpires' salaries. The complaint would be that the umpires would at that point lack the moral authority to referee a game.

The fact is that the U.N. is largely dominated by members of cultures that have shown a tendency to be extremely prone to (even petty) financial corruption. This alone is troubling. Most troubling is the potential of such graft influencing the voice of an organization that claims to represent global interests.

However, the most severe damage U.N. corruption causes is not that it makes pronouncements that are influenced by graft, but that it diminishes the moral authority of any decision it makes. Being called "out" by an umpire who is learned to be in the pocket of the other team destroys the moral credibility of the call, even if the call was right. In the same way, a corrupted U.N. is too easy to disregard even in those cases when it is right. In a unipolar world, with the U.S. as the superpower, it is important that there is a body that is repected and whose decision-making process and moral authority is unquestionably legitimate.

A corrupt U.N. deprives the U.S. of a genuine check on the moral rightness of our actions on the global stage. This is something from which we could ideally benefit, whether it reigns in or vindicates our actions, or simply forces us to have a more meaningful dialogue among ourselves about those actions we take in defiance of the world community.

e-mail post | Link Cosmos | [Permalink]  | (5) comments |  | Thursday, December 02, 2004

France's Admitted Strong Points  | e-mail post

My post yesterday on France brought me a message from a long-time friend in Chicago, I'll call him Slats Grobnik (I'm sure he won't mind). Unlike Mike Royko's Slats who was a commonsense working-man, I consider this individual one of the most erudite and articulate people I have the fortune to know, and do find it unfortunate that we have lived in different cities since college. However, as neither of us is likely to move, it is at least nice that e-mail provides such a good conduit for communication. Oh, and my friend's erudition in no way interferes with his genuinely down-to-earth sensibilities.

In any event, Slats took some legitimate issues with my comments on France yesterday, as well as fairly points out some of the things for which we should appreciate the French:
Barry, I have to take exception to the tone of your post on the decline and fall of French civilization.

Factually, when speaking about the quality of French engineering or its isolationism in matters of trade, you are correct. However, your swipe at DeGaulle was more than a bit unfair. Yes, DeGaulle was an arrogant, imperialistic and fatuous man, and easy to ridicule. But, as far as "deserting", the role that he played in rallying the morale of a defeated people could only have been performed outside of France, at that time. A resistance organization needs leadership outside its own country and subordinate leadership underground inside the country, which Jean Moulin occupied until his death.

As far as French anti-semitism is concerned, it's been a problem throughout most of europe just as racism has been in the U.S. However, I believe that the vast majority attacks on Jews in France have been perpetrated by arab immigrants, not French citizens. Attacks that have been loudly condemned by the government and the press.

In light of the cultural cross-fertilization that occurred between the U.S. and France during the twentieth century, it's unfortunate that France has been singled out as whipping boy by many on the right.

The film noirs of the postwar years and the rebirth of cinema during the seventies would have been unthinkable without the French gangster films of the thirties and the New Wave of the sixties. And Godard owes a debt to Hollywood he has never sufficiently acknowledged. American jazz musicians were influenced by the music of Ravel and Debussy. And the French public embraced Charlie Parker and Miles Davis before they were widely known in the U.S. (I'm not going to throw in the influence of French literary theory in U.S. colleges, for obvious reasons).

The French government notwithstanding, those who bash France still have to come to terms with a formidable record of cultural achievement that has shaped, and continues to shape, western civilization. Not to mention a culinary tradition that is the envy of the world.
I will certainly concede that my criticism of de Gaulle was a cheap shot, and in addition to Slats' comments, fails to recognize the genuine leadership he provided in France at the start of WWII, being the only French commander to force a German retreat during their invasion of France. I will certainly cop to taking some rhetorical liberties in my post.

I also agree, to a certain extent, with Slats' comments that France has been singled out as a whipping boy of some on the right. I personally feel most such France-bashing is ridiculous, and typically only engage in it under specific areas of criticism. I have certainly expressed complete incredulity at such bizarre examples as the "Freedom Fries" brouhaha. As I mentioned in my post yesterday, I was only prompted to write after stumbling upon a simple-minded and simply ridiculous defense of the French.

I would disagree with my friend that France has been singled out, as it implies that they have not been complicit in such actions, when in fact, I think that their arrogance in spite of a continuing decline in their relevance helps them single themselves out.

As to anti-Semitism, I would argue that the simple fact that the Vichy government could be effectively established in France as an instrument of the Nazis speaks to a higher level of anti-Semitism (as Chirac himself even acknowledged in the 1990's) or the fact that their British ambassador would in no way be censured by referring to Israel as a "shitty little country," (can you imagine if a U.S. ambassador made a similar comment about Sudan?). Also, government action against anti-Semitism only stepped up in the past year or so, after it had reached such a point that Jewish emigration from France to Israel doubled from the prior year, with 2002 emigration to Israel finally catching up to its 1972 level. An arguably balanced look at French anti-Semtitism comes from a New York Times magazine piece from February, "A Frenchman or a Jew?" [reprinted here]

However, in the course of my post, I neglected to mention some of the great things about France. I am not certain how much of a genuine criticism this is, as it could be fairly argued that even Stalin and Hitler may have had good points. Suffice it to say however, that Slats is absolutely correct in some areas. While it is easy to point to the (possibly more anecdotal than actual) French love of Jerry Lewis to mock their cultural sophistication, the French have been culturally positively influential (in both senses of positively).

Although I would argue that French cinema today, with the works of Catherine Breillat being a chief export, is not the French cinema of the 30's or 60's. I personally find Breillat's work interesting, in a prurient way, but we aren't talking about Truffaut or Godard. And again, I am certainly not complaining about the France of history, but rather of the France of today.

I guess the real complaint must be about my tone and about the general dislike for anti-French rhetoric. I will try to be more fair in the future. On the other hand, if the defense of the French can only come down to good food, good music and good film, then one must ask whether we should judge them as a modern nation-state, or simply as effective arbiters of aesthetics.



Update: Interested in French foreign policy or postwar Europe? Read my piece on "Kojève's Latin Empire and Contemporary French Foreign Policy." It provides a great deal of insight into French thought, some of reaffirming our stereotypes, but also providing context for such a worldview.

e-mail post | Link Cosmos | [Permalink]  | (0) comments |  | Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Coleman Calls for Annan Resignation in Wake of Oil-for-Food Scandal  | e-mail post

Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman has an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal today calling for Kofi Annan's resignation. Those who have followed the news on the Oil-for-Food scandal are certain to immediately understand why this should be necessary, but I think Coleman sums up the main reasons fairly well:
The decision to call for his resignation does not come easily, but I have arrived at this conclusion because the most extensive fraud in the history of the U.N. occurred on his watch. In addition, and perhaps more importantly, as long as Mr. Annan remains in charge, the world will never be able to learn the full extent of the bribes, kickbacks and under-the-table payments that took place under the U.N.'s collective nose.

Mr. Annan was at the helm of the U.N. for all but a few days of the Oil-for-Food program, and he must, therefore, be held accountable for the U.N.'s utter failure to detect or stop Saddam's abuses. The consequences of the U.N.'s ineptitude cannot be overstated: Saddam was empowered to withstand the sanctions regime, remain in power, and even rebuild his military. Needless to say, he made the Iraqi people suffer even more by importing substandard food and medicine under the Oil-for-Food program and pawning it off as first-rate humanitarian aid.

Since it was never likely that the U.N. Security Council, some of whose permanent members were awash in Saddam's favors, would ever call for Saddam's removal, the U.S. and its coalition partners were forced to put troops in harm's way to oust him by force. Today, money swindled from Oil-for-Food may be funding the insurgency against coalition troops in Iraq and other terrorist activities against U.S. interests. Simply put, the troops would probably not have been placed in such danger if the U.N. had done its job in administering sanctions and Oil-for-Food.

This systemic failure of the U.N. and Oil-for-Food is exacerbated by evidence that at least one senior U.N. official--Benon Sevan, Mr. Annan's hand-picked director of the U.N.'s Oil-for-Food oversight agency--reportedly received bribes from Saddam. According to documents from the Iraqi oil ministry that were obtained by us, Mr. Sevan received several allotments of oil under Oil-for-Food, each of which was worth hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars.

To make matters worse, the actions of Mr. Annan's own son have been called into question. Specifically, the U.N. recently admitted that Kojo Annan received more money than previously disclosed from a Swiss company named Cotecna, which was hired by the U.N. to monitor Iraq's imports under Oil-for-Food. Recently, there are growing, albeit unproven, allegations that Kofi Annan himself not only understands his son's role in this scandal--but that he has been less than forthcoming in what he knew, and when he knew it.
While the scandalous behavior of the Oil-for-Food administrators, the Secretary General's own son and the cover-up and stonewalling by the U.N. and Annan himself would be quite enough, Annan's complicity could go deeper. He was, after all, the very first negotiator with Iraq on Oil-for-Food sales, before he was Secretary General. [Annan's official UN bio] Regardless of Annan's possible self-enrichment, we all know it's not the crime, it's the coverup that makes for a real scandal.

I was discussing this topic with a friend yesterday who commented that he was amazed at the relative lack of coverage this was getting in the news. It's true, compared to scandals such as BCCI (a favorite of John Kerry) and even the Savings and Loan scandal and the "Keating Five," this U.N. issue is both larger financially, as well as geopolitically. Of course, I believe the primary reason it doesn't get coverage is that recognizing the full extent of the situation would require the news media to completely adjust their narrative about the United States' brazen disregard for traditional allies like France and Germany (I am still trying to figure out when Germany became a "traditional ally," other than our maintenance of a 60 year military occupation of their country after they tried to take over the world).

If the media is forced to admit openly that the United Nations suffers from fundamental corruption and that the corruption may have resulted in the ability of it to being an effective foreign policy force and that the United States' loudest critics in our actions against Iraq were financial beneficiaries of the corruption, well, then Dan Rather's face would be redder than Aunt Mabel's rhubarb pie. And we certainly can't have that happen, can we?

Of course, another reason is that the story is too abstract to naturally attract the attention of most Americans. I mean, seriously, we've got the sentencing phase of the Scott Peterson trial going on, how do you expect people to care about some corruption in the United Nations?



For those who haven't followed the Oil-for-Food program abuses (as they have been woefully underreported in the press) I would suggest starting with my post: "How Can You Build Alliances If Your Enemy Is Buying Them?" and then seeing some of the updates "Limited Coverage On Iraq's Oil-for-Alliances" and "Iraqi Weapons and Oil-for-Alliances News."

Then, when the Duelfer report came out in mid-October, the press was too fixated on restating what we already knew (there were no WMD stockpile in Iraq) to report much on "Oil-for-Alliances List Highlights from Duelfer Report" although they did at least cover some of the denials "Oil-for-Alliances News Roundup: Denials and Ignorance" (LBJ knew from his very first senate campaign that the denial was assured of coverage, even if the attack itself wasn't.)

Most recently, I provided a couple of posts on the work of Senator Coleman and Levin's special committee on investigations. [Update 1] [Update 2]
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