Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Things I learned recently.

I am reading the biography of Paul O'neill - former sec of treasury - bush 43 administration. Basically it claims this administration is being driven by ideogical and political forces with little appreciation for the best long-term interests of the country. People who prefer not to use the scientific method in drawing conclusions and setting up policy. According to the book, the president is an inexperienced fool being led by the nose by those close to him - Rove, Cheney, Hughes and others. They use scripted cabinet meetings and stacked task forces to drive policy in the direction that they desire. Moderate people - O'Neill, Whitman and Powell were being used as fig leafs by the administration to conceal an extreme right-wing policy. Massive tax-cuts were pushed through despite the mutual disapproval of O'Neill and Greenspan, who wanted the tax-cuts to be dependant on the continuation of budget surpluses. Within the administration the tax cuts were backed by supply-side economists. The book also mentions that military action against Iraq was brought up in one of the first cabinet meetings, long before Sept. 11. WMDs in Iraq were cooked up in spite of the CIA, not because of it. All multilateral peaceful approaches to confrontations were ideologically dismissed.

Why can't we have better leaders? How can Bush have been elected, not once, but twice?

I also realized several things by reading the book. First that decreasing corporate taxes should increase stock prices. Second that high-risk dollar-denominated foreign bonds are partially mitigated in risk by the possibility of US-led financial rescue. Its just a matter of asking the question: which countries would the US not allow a default? Is it also not possible to hedge against default by shorting a country's currency?

Moving on.. I also read a book on the British empire (Niall Ferguson - Empire), where tbe author argues that the British empire may have been a force for good and that the US must take over where the Brits left off. He argues that if the British hadn't been in India, the Japanese would have been worse colonialists.. And that the Germans in South Africa would have done much worse than the British. The Brits also can be said to have crusaded for an end to slavery during the 19th century. He also expresses the idea that colonialism actually improved the economic fortunes of the colonized (at least in some places) by creating incorruptible British legal systems in the outlying colonies which would ensure the safety of investments and thus accelerate their flow. He also credits the Empire with bringing civilization to the heathens and leaving many functioning democracies in its wake.

All in all, it was a thought-stimulating read. Some of the conclusions are reasonable, but the question remains: Would people rather be materially better off and ruled by incorruptible foreigners or poor but ruled by corrupt locals? Rationally the answer should probably be the former, realistically historically the answer seems to usually be the latter. If people choose the irrational choice, should we bother asking them? A British imperialist would probably say no and colonize them. An American [neo-imperialist] would just argue that people are rational beings and the question is moot, would then invade and be suprised by the unfriendly welcome, and then surprised again by seemingly irrational election results.

I also read several books on South Africa. The whole apartheid thing interested me a lot, especially the creation of the bantustan states. I think it would be interesting to compare the rump state of Gaza to Transkei or Ciskei. The SA government gave independence to several of the bantustans and the government of Bophutswana in particular initially resisted being absorbed back into post-apartheid South Africa. Interestingly a Boer (white Afrikaans speakers) rebellion was meant to break out to support the independence of Bophutswana before the rebellion was hijacked by complete loons and abandoned by the majority of its intended participants. It was interesting to read how different groups of white South Africans coped with losing power and learning about the rather heinous actions of the white apartheid government. One of these heinous actions was the use of death squads to dispatch black leaders. While the officers in these units were white, the men were often former black anti-apartheid guerillas that were turned.

Bantustans were also tried in Namibia while it was a South African colony. There are some very strange people down there. For example in Namibia there is a very proud group that calls itself 'the Bastards'. They are the descendants of Cape Dutch settlers and native African women. At some point they obtained self-consciousness and as a group trekked north to set up their own colonies in Namibia. They speak Dutch, have Dutch names and declared an independent state in 1872. No one recognized it of course.

South Africa is appealing.. I would want to go there some time. The diversity in that country is very impressive. First you have the 80% of the population which is black, but even these are divided into many tribes and languages - Zulu, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa and many others. Then there are the 10% who are whites and these are Afrikaaner, English, Portuguese, French and others. Then there are the Coloureds, who are various mixtures of white, black and malay. There are also the Indians and the Cape Malays. Only problem is that its expensive to fly there and not so safe to be there... Though the safety concern might be overblown, I know in Israel it was.

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