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About the complaints on Obama’s interference in Detroit

with 5 comments

The government has no business involving itself in business.

That is the popular refrain you will hear from fiscal conservatives/libertarians and such. Personally, I don’t disagree with the sentiment. Even in these tough times, I believe that the economy is best served by private enterprise with limited interference from the government. Plus, anyone growing up in India through the 70-80’s  observed first hand how governmental involvement creates inefficiency in business  (e.g. land-line phone companies) and how too much red-tapism destroy entrepreneurial spirits (or limits it to a dedicated or privileged few).  So in general, I am all for the government keeping their fingers off private businesses.

Except, when they have a right to it, by virtue of ummmm…….say few billion dollars invested ! I am of course, referring to all the hullabaloo over Obama’s recent sacking of the GM CEO Wagoner. Predictably, a swathe of right-wing bloggers (even some liberal ones) are upset over what they perceive as the administration’s needless meddling. The Corner sums it up thus:

GM is now Obama’ s company. If it closes, it will be on his say-so. But Obama is a politician, not a CEO. So his first concern is to avoid bad political fallout, which means he will prop up the company for as long as it takes, regardless of what makes economic sense.

This is very much on the lines of emotion expressed by Don Boudreaux in an editorial on USA Today earlier this month (he was talking about bank nationalization, but the idea is the same):

Politicians’ incentives differ radically from those of private owners. Few politicians look past the next election or beyond the familiar interest groups whose support is crucial.

(A very typical line that is often parroted by a certain eminent Indian libertarian blogger as well.)

All this is mildly amusing.  I wonder if people writing these stuff have any idea about the irony: Last time I checked, the current financial mess was created not by politicians, but private businesses, or rather the heads of certain private businesses. And the reason it happened is that these CEOs, just like politicians, were looking at short-term incentives - lining their own pockets with bonuses without considering long-term ramifications of their risky investments.

Similar short-sightedness have contributed to the fall of  the Detroit Big 3.  Rather than compete with foreign automakers by designing better vehicles in terms of quality, reliability and fuel-efficiency, they have been content to sit on the sales of poorly made gas-guzzling SUVs and trucks and lobbying to block any legislation that impact fuel efficiency.

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The problem is that the government should not have been involved in this mess at all (although when such a large number of people’s jobs are on the line, it is difficult for a modern government to be hands-off – and remember that while people are blaming Obama, the major bailouts  were passed by the Bush administration). But now that it is involved having paid the dollars, you cannot complain about its involvement, for good or bad.

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Written by BongoP'o'ndit

March 31, 2009 at 7:53 am

The day the flame died…..

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Not exactly what De Coubertin envisaged (Image from New York Times).

The flame did not actually out ‘die out’, but had to be extinguished several times, as pro-Tibetian protesters disrupted the Paris leg of the Olympic torch relay. This was after similar protests in London (in addition to protests by Uighur Muslims in Istanbul) and certainly there is more to come.

Much of the protest is in response to the recent Chinese crackdown in Tibet, as well as an overall activism against China’s poor human rights record and suppression of individual rights. Calls have gone out for sportsmen to boycott the games and for world leaders to skip the opening/closing ceremonies to mark solidarity with the Tibetans.

However, some have questioned the timing of these protests: asking why it took an Olympic Games to highlight the Tibetan struggle and if an event that is meant for sports is a right place to mix in politics.

The answer to the first is the brutal truth that most people simply don’t care beyond their own sphere until it becomes fashionable to do so. For many years, the question of Tibet’s right to independence from China has been a niche cause célèbre. But now with the whole world’s attention on China, it was somewhat inevitable and justified that pro-independent elements in Tibet would attempt to highlight their plight. Just as surely, most people will forget the issue about a month after the Olympics (how many people care anymore about Darfur, even while the situation there has hardly improved?).

The second issue of whether sports and politics should mix is tougher to answer. While the protests are far removed from the idealism of promoting world peace and healthy relation between nations that Baron Coubertin preached, the Olympics are no strangers to political controversies, starting from the Nazi propaganda of 1936 to the terrorist acts in Munich ’72 and reaching a nadir with the Cold War boycotts of 1980 and ’84.

[The games have been relatively free of politics since then, though not short of controversies - from doping (or how best the athletes dont get caught), overcommercialisation, corruption in the bidding process etc. No one other than a dewy-eyed innocent will claim that the Olympics is about the spirit anymore.]

So there is precedence in the politicization of the Olympics. More broadly, sporting bans have been used – arguably with success – in dismantling South Africa’s apartheid regime. And Olympics is certainly one of the biggest sporting events (actually, currently more of an event or a gala than sports). So there is certainly some justification there as well.

However, the bigger question is whether any of these protests will an effect on the Chinese government or its policies. When demonstrations took place in Tibet, the Chinese were able to crack-down severely, gagging the media in the process. They have also launched an aggressive public relations strategy responding to the world-wide protests.

But herein lies the importance of the current torch-relay protests: They are happening in major world cities, and most notably in socities that actually allow the freedom to voice dissent. With such prolonged agitations against the most prominent symbol of an event that is supposed to be the Chinese government’s grand showpiece, how long can they afford to keep up the bullying tactics ?

Conversely, it is also time for national governments around the world to use the opportunity in forcing China’s hand into tackling human rights issues (So far, such a policy hasn’t been forthcoming, most head of states have been satisfied to merely voice demured complaints).

Additionally, given the commercial nature of the Olympics, will such prolonged agitations force the mega-corporations sposoring the events, to think twice about the risks invested in associating their names with Beijing Olympics?

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PS: Coming back to the torch relay, in our own country (where we sadly continue to suck at the Olympics), the torch is being carried by such sporting luminaries as Aamir Khan and Saif Ali Khan. Thankfully, one deserving torch bearer, Baichung Bhutia, has refused citing solidarity with the Tibetans.

Additionally, we have allowed ourselved to be stared down by the Chinese diplomacy over Tibet (see excellent posts by Nitin here and here).

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(Thanks to Rohit for comments/discussions)

Written by BongoP'o'ndit

April 7, 2008 at 11:26 pm

Enemy of the enemy is……my enemy !

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Dinesh D’souza is a right-wing extremist nut-case and (therefore?) a self-proclaimed intellectual, who has gone to town with a ridiculous assetion that the so-called ‘cultural left’ in America (e.g Hollywood, gay people etc) was actually responsible for 9/11. His main motive, of course, is to sell a book.

His delusional rambling have received well-deserved smackdowns from Keith Olberman (via), various blogs (e.g see here) and in person on the The Colbert Report (dude never even realized that Colbert was having him). The twisted sense of logic he operates on is further exposed in this Newsweek article (Via Ed Brayton), which provides a list of people that D’Souza considers to be ‘the enemy’. The full list is available at either links, but one name particularly jumped out for me  (and Ed talks about it too)

The Cultural Left
Norman Mailer, Salman Rushdie and Toni Morrison, novelists; journalists Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd (The New York Times); playwright Eve Ensler ("The Vagina Monologues"); authors Barbara Ehrenreich ("Nickel and Dimed") and Karen Armstrong ("A History of God")

WTF ! Rushdie – the same guy who was the target of a fatwa by Ayotollah, who had to go in hiding for a decade on that account and has never been circumspect in his harsh criticism of Islam. This same guy is considered to be part of a "domestic insurgency" and "at least as dangerous" as bin Laden’s operatives !

Written by BongoP'o'ndit

February 1, 2007 at 5:53 pm

Chewing on trans-fat

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[UPDATED]

The recent decision by New York City’s Board of Health to ban the usage of trans-fat in all restaurants (and catering units) in the city bothers me. Ever since I heard about the initial proposal few months ago, I have not been able to decide whether it is a good or bad idea. 

On one hand, the ban is a classic example of the government poking its nose in matters that should be left to individual choice. It sets you on a slippery slope of nanny-statism and is arguably just a step away from enforcing daily compulsory jogging. On the other hand, since trans-fat does increase the risk of heart-attack and other medical conditions, there is the question of a burden on the public health system (leaving aside the libertarian argument that the state has no business being involved in health-care at all). Even if you have private medical insurance, your falling sick probably raises the overall premium for the population. Besides, you are taking up the time of doctors and nurses who could be treating other patients. 

Two similar examples in this context is the ban on smoking in public places and the mandatory usage of helmets while motorcycling. The ban on smoking is less ambiguous in the sense that one individual’s habit should not affect the health of another directly. In case of helmets, one can argue that chances of a fatal injury requiring intensive medical care is much more probable than the possibility of say an heart attack due to consumption of trans-fat. In both these cases I am in favor of state intervention.

Coming back to the ban on trans-fat, Professor Richard Posner, of the Becker-Posner Blog, performs a crude cost-benefit analysis and in conclusion says  (H/T: Confused):

My cost-benefit analysis is, necessarily, highly tentative. However, it inclines me to a sympathetic view of the trans-fats ban. I anticipate strong opposition from libertarians.

Do read the full post – this is a surprising endorsement from an usually libertarian voice.

Still, one wonders how much purpose the ban will serve. Folks who are diet- and health-conscious (and therefore at low-risks for diseases) already avoid trans-fat as much as possible. And such people are usually of an economic status to be able to make the choice of eating healthy. Those who live sedentary life-styles are at a higher risk for diseases anyway – trans-fat or not. For the urban poor and inner-city population, such a ban will also raise the cost of eating. Besides, one remains free to cook with trans-fat at home.

My personal preference would be to not ban trans-fat altogether, but rather force restaurants using the oils to prominently declare as such. Leave it to the consumer to make the healthy choice.

(Thanks to Confused for inputs and discussion that lead to this post. Stay tuned for his own take which is due to come out soon).

UPDATE: Confused has a post on helmet/seatbelt regulations and safety. It is somewhat related to this discussion as far as individual freedom versus public safety is concerned. He makes a good point regarding mandatory helmet/seatbelt usage:

The trick here is to couple the use of helmets with other public policy initiatives. For example, clearly demarcated road space for bikers or education for car owners that bikers have as much right to be on roads as they have- a fact which sadly enough car owners in India don’t realize. Similarly, seat belts are more useful when heavy penalties are given for other traffic law violations-over speeding or drunken driving. Another very important aspect is proper education: seat-belts/helmets save lives but not in every case!

This was implied but not clearly stated in my post. Simply banning trans-fat might not reduce the risk of all heart diseases – one needs public education too regarding other healthy practices.

Anyway, after reading the comments from Brian, I have to say I am more convinced by the pro-ban arguements – but I can’t get rid of this nagging feeling that somewhere along the line there needs to be more personal responsibility.

Written by BongoP'o'ndit

December 19, 2006 at 2:37 pm

Unfair comments

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Megan McArdle (Jane Galt) refers (via Crooked Timber via WaPo) to a recent paper by Vanderbilt economist Joni Hersch which purports to show that there exists a correlation between skin color and economic prosperity for recently arrived immigrants to the United States (link to pdf).

Bypassing a discussion over the findings of the study itself, interesting as that will be (check the original links for some ongoing debates), I would like to highlight a particular sentence from Megan’s post:

I find this sadly unsurprising. The evidence of workplace discrimination is that resumes with recognizeably black names are less likely to be picked out of the pile; it’s natural to assume that this winds its way up through the food chain, although in person presumably personal characteristics mitigate it somewhat. Also, in many countries, like India, those darker-skinned immigrants would have been discriminated against pretty openly in their homeland, which presumably stunts human capital formation. I don’t know what should be done about this, but I think there’s no question that skin discrimination exists.

Discrimination based on skin-color happens with obvious openess in India, sadly bordering on a social malaise. Especially for girls with a dark skin, it is perceived to be a huge drawback in the marriage ‘market’. Go through any Indian matrimonial column and you will be struck by the numerous ingenious adjectives employed to hide the prospective bride’s ‘true colors’ (in Bengali, ‘ujwal shyamborna’, roughly translated as ‘fair dark-complexioned’, is popular, while ‘wheastish’ is the favorite term in English).

However, all this is in a social milieu. One wonders how much discrimination solely on the basis of skin color takes place at the work-place, which is what she is referring to. Either in the hi-tech job sector, from where majority of the immigration to US occurs, or in others, if any discrimination exists, it is in favor of where you got your academic degree(s), your intelligence, and to some extent, your command over English, true especially for management level jobs. None of these factors have a correlation with skin-color AFAIK.

Admittedly I have never worked in India – but I have observed my parents and relatives and parents and relatives of my friends, many among them dark-skinned – and most have attained very high positions within their organizations. (This is not say that nepotism and politics does not advance one’s career in India).

Even in industries such as cinema and modeling, that should be crawling with fair-skinned people (and indeed they are in majority), dusky actresses and models such as Smita Patil, Bipasha Basu, Konkona Sen Sharma, Nandita Das etc have done rather well.

In short, the statement by McArdle is tripe.

One might say that this is a very trivial point and nothing to get worked up over. But it really bothers me that a highly educated blogger like Megan McArdle, who usually employs sound logic and rational reasonings in her writings (often to excrutiating levels) should harbour such mis-conceptions, and do a lets-just-pull-a-conjecture-out-of-my-hat-to-support-my-statements trick.

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On a related note, Patrix has a post on beauty and skin color among African-Americans, and points out to a short student film on the subject. Do check it out at his blog.

Written by BongoP'o'ndit

October 20, 2006 at 8:59 am

And finally the Peace Prize

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Awarding a ‘Peace Prize‘ in a world full of conflict may sound like a twisted irony to the cynical mind like mine – but it is tough to argue against this year’s awardee. Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank of Bangladesh has been fighting poverty where it really matters – on the ground, at the source – not at rock concerts or meetings at five star hotels over a gourment dinner. Help the poor by providing an opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty through their own will (as opposed to welfare handouts) – that is a credo I strongly believe in and one that the Grameen Bank strives for.

There will of course be some detractors , but in my mind it is a worthy choice.

For the last two weeks, the blog has been obsessed with the Nobel Prize (previous posts here, here and here). Blame that on a busier than usual schedule at my day job and not much in terms of other news that interest me.

Regular irrevence will resume shortly.

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Written by BongoP'o'ndit

October 13, 2006 at 7:58 am

Orhan Pamuk wins the Nobel…

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…in Literature (finally breaking the American march towards a Nobel sweep1). Pamuk, a Turkish author, was recently mired in controversy in his homeland for speaking out about Turkish atrocities against Armenians and Kurds. He was accused of being anti-Turk, and the case generated international condemnation for Turkey’s stance on freedom of speech. The charges were eventually dropped.

The Nobel citation described him as such:

"who in the quest for the melancholic soul of his native city has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures".

I will leave it to the more erudite bloggers for further comments on this one. Personally, I had read Snow last year and was mesmerized by the enigmatic story-telling, as well as deeply intrigued by the depiction of the tense clash between government imposed (Western) secularism and personal (Islamic) religious choices. Extremely topical, wouldn’t you agree ?

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1: Although the Economics award is not strictly a ‘Nobel Prize’, and hardly any Americans stood a chance for the Peace Prize this year.  

PS – Interesting how the MSM is breaking the story – I assume they will fill in with more information as the day goes on but hardly any mention of the persecution in his native country so far. The AP release that most sites are carrying right now (7.40am EDT) , however, all contain this nugget:

Last year’s winner was British playwright Harold Pinter, a vociferous critic of U.S. foreign policy. That award triggered accusations that the Swedish Academy was anti-American, left-leaning and politically motivated.

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Written by BongoP'o'ndit

October 12, 2006 at 7:47 am

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