Friday, June 27, 2008

Zim's One Man Election Runoff

As you may know, today is runoff election day in Zimbabwe. While the situation is fluid and clear results are unlikely in the near term, I have compiled some links that shed much needed light on what is a catastrophic crisis for the people of Zimbabwe.

Early reports from inside Zimbabwe indicate that MDC supporters are staying away from the polls, though many worry that as the day wears on, ZANU-PF will begin forcing people to vote.

The AP confirms that this is indeed the case.

Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai, who announced he would not contest the runoff against Robert Mugabe, is urging his supporters to vote for the president's party rather than risk their personal safety.

This in contrast to the official state newspaper, The Herald, which is predicting "Massive Voter Turnout" as "ZANU-PF Gears for Victory."

Here the Zimbabwe police force claims to have caught MDC arsonists at work sabotaging polling sites. Though not in Mugabe's neighborhood, apparently.

Finally, have a look at Mugabe's calling card - a 20 minute video featuring hidden camera interviews with MDC activists and victims of torture (contains some graphic images). This is the most complete accounting of the brutality and violence perpetrated by Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe's enforcers.

photo of Morgan Tsvangirai campaign poster by frontlineblogger

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Sunset for Mugabe in Zimbabwe?

I recently interviewed Peter Jacobs of the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town, South Africa about the political crisis in Zimbabwe.

In your estimation, is the land reform issue at the root of the political crisis in Zimbabwe?

Indeed, land reform or the absence of a genuine pro-poor land redistribution policy is a major source of the socio-economic and political crisis in Zimbabwe. But it is inaccurate to trace everything to this single driving factor.

The most productive resources remain concentrated in the hands of a few (including the black elite). But the land issue alone cannot explain the depth, breath and long duration of this crisis. Other post-independence economic and social policy blunders plus the dictatorial degeneration of the ZANPU-PF regime must also be factored into this story.

How has the land reform issue been dealt with in South Africa?

In South Africa, land reform is law-abiding and modeled on the willing seller willing buyer template promoted by the World Bank. In other words, it is through the law and the market, the pillars of land reform entrenched in the post-apartheid Constitution, that 30% of white-owned land is to be transferred to blacks.

Fast-tracking land restitution with a tougher expropriation law is becoming increasingly popular among ANC politicians- especially those most likely to seize hold of parliamentary power after the 2009 national elections.

What risks exist for the regional economy as a result of the ongoing crisis in Zimbabwe?

This really depends on who one talks to and at what time. Among most investors, the mood is very gloomy, but they are eager to pour capital into Zimbabwe if there is greater stability.

South Africa’s poor record in attracting long-term fixed capital investment is often blamed on the crisis in Zimbabwe. But it is not easy to support this claim with hard evidence given the many other things happening in South Africa and other neighboring countries. Other resource based economies in the region (such as Angola and Botswana, for instance) have been attracting investors.

For the rural and urban poor, on the other hand, this is a different matter. The region appears to be unable to handle the sharp rise in out-migration from Zimbabwe. This factor, no doubt, has contributed to the mindless violent attacks on nationals from neighboring countries which have erupted mainly in South African slums.

Do you expect violence in Zimbabwe to worsen prior to the June 27 runoff?

The entire state machine is now deployed to terrorize Zimbabweans. And the post-election humanitarian crimes and brutality of the regime go far beyond imprisoning the 2 vociferous leaders of the MDC, Arthur Mutambara and Morgan Tsvangirai.

The worst scenario as the country heads towards the run-off poll on June 27 is a massive intensification of this campaign of violence. In the best scenario, the run-off will take place in a volatile climate of fear, intimidation and the threat of destabilization.

Are the people of South Africa satisfied with the response of their government to what is happening across the border?

South African reactions to the crisis in Zimbabwe can best be described as mixed. Elements within the governing ANC have been speaking out against ZANU-PF, asking it to accept its defeat in the March elections.

This runs counter to the official ‘quiet diplomacy’ approach of President Mbeki and leading state officials. In their view, Zimbabwe is an independent and sovereign state which needs to resolve its internal difficulties without external interference.

Civil society groups, including COSATU which is the trade union federation allied to the ANC, have been demonstrating against the human rights record of the Zimbabwean government. Aside from this ‘indirect lobbying’, poorer South Africans have not expressed or articulated any organized public dissatisfaction towards the way government has handled the Zimbabwean situation so far.

Minority opposition parties in South Africa, like the Democratic Alliance and Independent Democrats, however, want the Mbeki cabinet to shift from its ‘quiet diplomacy’ stance to active support for ‘regime change’.

What should an MDC or a unity government do to address the dire economic conditions inside Zimbabwe?

Let us assume that there is no rigging of the June 27 run-off and the MDC scores a landslide victory. What the MDC needs to tackle in this context, for a start, is to stop the economic meltdown of Zimbabwe, create a free space for civil society to engage in politics and implement a pro-poor redistributive project.

Large-scale capital investment is required to rebuild its physical and social (healthcare, education, etc) infrastructure. Private foreign capital inflows may not be enough to quickly address these needs, yet privatization is core to its economic platform.

To boost food security, it needs an integrated program to redistribute land and agricultural resources to poorer farmers. However, until now, the MDC appears to have woefully neglected drafting a clear proposal on how to resolve Zimbabwe’s complex land question.

photo by babasteve

Monday, June 16, 2008

Who Called the Electric Car?

Someone once referred to Los Angeles as "Houston with palm trees," a statement rightly perceived as a devastating knock against the largest, and smoggiest, city in Texas.

As I found out this weekend, however, the comparison is not quite fair. For one thing, Houston has barbeque, brisket, and a vibrant local beer culture. You can't get that kind of down-home delicious stuff on Hollywood and Vine.

But for my money, the neatest thing about Houston is the electric car.

This for-profit taxi service, started by a trio of local entrepeneurs under the name REV Houston, offers free rides anywhere in the downtown area. You can either call directly or visit one of their designated pick up points around town. A simple text message with the location's code brings the electric car right to you.

In America's signature oil town, you can now get a free ride anywhere you like while paying nothing more than a tip to the driver (the service expects to survive by selling ad space on the vehicles). The car above runs entirely on electricity donated by a local coffee shop. The service is increasingly popular among young drinkers soaking up all that Texas beer and barbeque on the weekends. Which points to the unintended benefits derived from getting people to leave their cars at home when heading out for a night on the town. And riding around in these little buggies is kind of fun.

So all you plucky entrepreneurs in cities large and small, what are you waiting for? Let's get some free electric taxis on the street. Do your communities a great service by giving people an incentive to avoid risky behaviors, help improve the air quality in your town, and make some money while you're at it.

(Hat tip to Evan O'Neil for the title)

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Open Education, Open Markets

Over on Policy Innovations, two extremely succesful innovators are making the case for open markets.

No wait. Er. Make that open education.

Jimmy Wales and Richard Baraniuk, the brains behind Wikipedia and Connexions respectively, outline their hopes for a new movement toward what they call Open Education. By applying the dynamics of open source platforms, the duo are trumpeting an approach to education that allows "anyone, anywhere [to] write, assemble, customize, and publish their own open course or textbook."

The language they use got me thinking about the dynamic cycle of "creative destruction" that underpins the economic case for capitalism. In many ways the open source application is the ultimate free-market; constantly groping for equilibrium in an environment of competition and choice.

Consider the similarities between the following quotes:

"The fundamental impulse that sets and keeps the capitalist engine in motion comes from the new consumers, goods, the new methods of production or transportation, the new markets, the new forms of industrial organization that capitalist enterprise creates." (Joseph Schumpeter, taken from Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy)

"Open Education promises to turn the current textbook production pipeline into a vast dynamic knowledge ecosystem that is in a constant state of creation, use, reuse, and improvement." (Wales and Baraniuk, taken from The Open Education Revolution in Policy Innovations)

Now, admittedly, the comparison is not perfect. But, in spirit at least, the two concepts are very closely related.

For one thing, open source and open markets are positively related in their potential to maximize gains. Didn't your mother ever tell you that two heads are better than one? Well, that's the rationale behind open source. The open source mechanism self-corrects in much the same way as the market searches for equilibrium.

On the downside, open source platforms can't guarantee accuracy any more than open markets can guarantee equity. In both cases, however, advocates claim the overall gains are worth the cost.

To some, both open source and open markets are characterized by a dangerous tilt toward anarchy. This has lead to a perception of unreliability; open markets and open source platforms must be tamed to be useful. Unsuprisingly, both deplore the interference of government regulators. "Leave us alone to do our thing!" they scream. "Don't interfere with our platform/market. You'll only ruin it."

Lastly, both open source and open markets reward innovation. Read the article by Wales and Baraniuk and try replacing every reference to Open Education with open markets. It kind of works.

Where do you come down? Do you trust open source platforms? Are you wary of free market capitalism? Do you disagree with the comparison? Let me know. According to Wales and Baraniuk, "Everyone has something to teach. Everyone has something to learn. Together, we can all help transform the way the world develops, disseminates, and uses knowledge."

photo of an open source car by fringehog

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Is Discounting Fair to Future Generations?

Would you rather have $100 dollars now or in a year from now? Most people would choose to have $100 dollars now because, why wait, right? It is also rational to want the $100 dollars now because there is a lot you could do with that money in a year. You could spend it, invest in a new business, or put it in an interest-yielding bank account. So $100 dollars is literally more valuable to us now than it is in the future, especially in an environment in which there is positive inflation. In economics, this understanding of the time value of money is calculated by "discounting" the future value of money. But is this practice fair to future generations?

In the climate change context, there is disagreement on the trade off of money generated now and burdens to future generations. This tension comes up in the recent New York Review of Books article on the economist William Nordaus's new book A Question of Balance and Ernest Zedillo's book Global Warming. Nordaus starts with the conventional assumptions on the time value of money, while the British Government-supported Stern report disagrees. From the New York Review of Books:

There is a fundamental difference of philosophy between Nordhaus and Sir Nicholas Stern. Chapter 9 of Nordhaus's book explains the difference, and explains why Stern advocates a policy that Nordhaus considers disastrous. Stern rejects the idea of discounting future costs and benefits when they are compared with present costs and benefits. Nordhaus, following the normal practice of economists and business executives, considers discounting to be necessary for reaching any reasonable balance between present and future. In Stern's view, discounting is unethical because it discriminates between present and future generations. That is, Stern believes that discounting imposes excessive burdens on future generations. In Nordhaus's view, discounting is fair because a dollar saved by the present generation becomes fifty-four dollars to be spent by our descendants a hundred years later.

This has very real implications:

The practical consequence of the Stern policy would be to slow down the economic growth of China now in order to reduce damage from climate change a hundred years later. Several generations of Chinese citizens would be impoverished to make their descendants only slightly richer. According to Nordhaus, the slowing-down of growth would in the end be far more costly to China than the climatic damage. About the much-discussed possibility of catastrophic effects before the end of the century from rising sea levels, he says only that "climate change is unlikely to be catastrophic in the near term, but it has the potential for serious damages in the long run." The Chinese government firmly rejects the Stern philosophy, while the British government enthusiastically embraces it. The Stern Review, according to Nordhaus, "takes the lofty vantage point of the world social planner, perhaps stoking the dying embers of the British Empire."

Is the Stern report advancing a new way to think about the rights of future generations or is it British imperialism in disguise? And what about political risk? If Chinese Communist Party opted for green policies over growth, theoretically, would it fulfill its obligations to its people?

Common Sense Prevails This Week

This week seems to have been one of those periods in which people came to their senses. Especially Wednesday. Common sense seems to be catching on. If you look at history it usually does, and that is one of the reasons I am an optimist.

While the U.S. political scene appears to have come back on track with Senator Clinton's recognition that her chances of becoming the Democratic nominee are slim (Slate's Hillary Deathwatch has argued as such since March) and the United States is indeed "ready" for an African-American president, common sense has also popped up in other parts of the world, giving me hope.

In Tokyo, Japan's Supreme Court came to its senses in favor of justice, perhaps realizing that nationality is not an issue of "ethnicity," a concept that no one seems to be able to define:

TOKYO (AP) — Japan's Supreme Court ruled Wednesday against a law that denied citizenship to children born out of wedlock to Japanese fathers and foreign mothers, a court official said. Japan's top court ruled in favor of 10 Japanese-Filipino children suing for citizenship in Japan. The children were split into two separate cases, one filed in 2003 and one filed in 2005. The suits were filed by Filipino mothers who had proved the fathers of their children were Japanese, the report said.

Between NYC and Japan, good sense prevailed in California on Wednesday too. Another court did the right thing, giving proper rights to people, allowing gays to marry:

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Gay and lesbians couples around California are planning their nuptials following a refusal by the state's highest court to stay its decision egalizing gay marriage.

The California Supreme Court's announcement Wednesday cleared the final hurdle for same-sex couples in the nation's most populous state to wed beginning June 17, when state officials have said counties must start issuing new gender-neutral marriage licenses. Judy Appel, executive director of Our Family Coalition, a San Francisco-based group that advocates for same-sex couples with children, said she was thrilled by the court's refusal to stay the ruling.

The long view of history shows that people eventually do the right thing. Let's hope it lasts.

Photo by Thomas MacEntee.