Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Is this funny?

Is this New Yorker cover funny? How about this mock Time cover of Bush?
I was reading the new edition of the New Yorker on the M15 bus this morning, going down Second Avenue. It was the New Yorker with the depiction of Senator Obama in Muslim clothes and his wife as a terrorist--a source of much controversy this week. The article I was reading was the leader in which Hendrik Hertzberg defends Obama's flip flopping on policy issues. Hertzberg ends the article with a joke: Flip-flops are preferable to cement shoes, especially in the summertime (is that funny?). Across the isle from me on the bus was a man wearing a button that read: NY (HEART) OBAMA. A pro-Obama publication in a pro-Obama city is trying to defend the candidate from the ridiculous suggestion made by a Fox News reporter that his "fist bump" with his wife was some sort of terrorist symbol. (If this cover were a true New Yorker cartoon, the caption might ironically read: So Fox News was right all along.") In trying to defend Obama, the New Yorker published an "inappropriate" cover. But isn't that the essence of humor? It just so happens that the current issue of the New York Review of Books has an excellent article on the history of humor titled "Isn't It Funny?"
It turns out that Plato and Aristotle were into the chortle and feeling that one was superior to others. I think the cover might fit in this category: Those who know better than to believe that Obama is a "secret Muslim." Here is an excerpt:
Most ancient theorists, from Plato and Aristotle on, saw jokes as an expression of superiority, humor as "mockery and derision," and laughter, therefore, as "a slightly spiritualized snarl." This is fine, argues Holt, for a range of unpleasant jokes at the expense of the other races and religions, of the poor or otherwise unfortunate ("How did Helen Keller burn her fingers? She tried to read a waffle iron"). It also works for the kind of temporary triumph we might feel if we saw "Bill Gates get hit in the face with a custard pie." It does not seem up to the task of explaining why we might laugh at puns, for example. You might conceivably argue that we are there enjoying a sense of superiority over language itself. "But now," as Holt observes, "the superiority theory has become elastic to the point of meaninglessness."
But more appropriate is the more accepted notion that humor derives its power from the inappropriateness of mixing symbols or meaning:
More popular among modern theorists is the "incongruity theory" of joking, which sees humor and laughter stemming from the inappropriate mixing of categories or registers of meaning ("Work is the curse of the drinking classes," as Oscar Wilde quipped). Or, as Kant put it more opaquely in the Critique of Judgment, a joke arises "from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing." Kant's own example of this was a story of an Indian who looked astonished when an Englishman opened a bottle of beer and the contents frothed out. When asked why he was so surprised, the Indian replied, "I'm not surprised at its getting out, but at how you ever managed to get it all in." The problem here is not that jokes trade on incongruity, for almost all of them in some way do. It is why incongruity should give us pleasure, and why some sorts of incongruity prompt laughter and others (such as Oedipus' parenthood) do not. Besides, as Holt goes on to ask, why should the reaction either to incongruity or to a feeling of superiority be "a bout of cackling and chest heaving"?
Reasonable people should know that Obama is a patriot and therefore see the humor in the cover. Right? Well, maybe not. I did a quick poll in my office: No one found the cover funny. I guess there is a fine line between inappropriate and offensive. If I have to ask if it is funny, it probably isn't.

Quinlan: The US led us into this mess, the US will lead us out

I spoke this morning with Joseph Quinlan, Chief Market Strategist of Bank of America Capital Management here in New York. Our conversation touched on a range of issues including: the Irish economic downturn, inflation, the Fed, oil prices and the credit crunch.

Here's some of what he had to say.

On Alan Greenspan:
This is his mess. He created this and he's in some ways trying to rewrite history right now. The Fed could have prevented the housing bubble. They totally blew that.

On the interest rate approach of the Fed versus the European Central Bank (ECB):
They have different sets of problems. In the U.S., the house is on fire, and the Fed has to concentrate on getting the fire out. The ECB inflation focus is legit. Jean-Claude Trichet has to be brave enough to bring the European economy into recession, or the brink of recession, in order to get inflation under control.

On how we'll know the fire is out in the U.S.:
We need three things: stability in the housing market, oil prices down around $100/barrel, and bank write-offs need to be in the late innings. The housing market is still very much in turmoil. I think the probability is strong that oil will come down to that level. But we need the bank write-offs to be in the late innings. We need to be in the bottom of the ninth. Right now, it's maybe the bottom of the seventh.

On trans-Atlantic economic ties:
What this current downturn shows us is that all the talk of 'decoupling' the U.S. and European economies was premature. Personally, I'd like to see policy makers in Europe and the U.S. work toward creating a single capital market on a trans-Atlantic basis. But that's probably too much to ask.

On how it will all play out:
My feeling is, the U.S. led us into this mess and the U.S. will lead us out. California and Florida will be in recession for at least a year more, but nationally we should see some easing of this crisis when the bank write-offs really start being moved out of the system.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Emmanuel Jal: WARchild takes the mic

The tracks on rapper Emmanuel Jal’s major label debut, WARchild, are a bit frenetic, drawing more inspiration from the syncopated rhythms of African pop than the beat-heavy ethic of American hip-hop. The reason is simple: Jal isn’t a product of the concrete jungle, but the actual one.

A native of southern Sudan, Jal was forced into the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) at the age of six. After five years of fighting, he escaped to neighboring Kenya with the aid of a British relief worker, Emma McCune. Now in his late twenties (like many child soldiers, Jal is unsure of his actual age), he is drawing attention for his musical talent as well as his captivating life-story.

At last month’s 46664 concert in London celebrating Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday, Peter Gabriel called Jal “a young Bob Marley.”

“[He] came out of the horror of a brutal war, a brutal childhood with a clear voice calling out against violence, hatred and materialism. He’s going to have a huge influence in the world way beyond his music,” said Gabriel.

This is already happening. A documentary about Jal, also titled War Child, has been making the rounds on the international film festival circuit. He has been a spokesman for Amnesty International and the Make Poverty History campaign. He is founder of Gua, a charity devoted to education and sustainable development in sub-Saharan Africa.

For more on Emmanuel Jal, read Emily Geminder's profile on Policy Innovations.

photo of Emmanueal Jal at 46664 in London by p_c_w

Monday, July 14, 2008

Bud Gets in Bed with InBev

$52 billion bottles of beer on the wall...

Anheuser-Busch, the American brewer of Budweiser ("the American lager") has agreed to be bought by Belgium-based brewer InBev for $52 billion, creating the largest beer company in the world. The deal has faced some backlash already in the United States. But I can think of a few bright spots:

One is that some argue that AB, as a family business, may be able to perform better as part of a larger corporation in today's globalized economy.

Second, InBev is famous for cost-cutting. One area that InBev may cut is AB's famous (infamous) marketing budget. AB has been a ruthless competitor in the domestic market and its marketing budget is just one illustration of that approach. Many microbreweries complain that they simply cannot compete with this marketing muscle. Might a cut marketing budget make it fairer for smaller start ups?

Third, a lot of the beer business is about distribution. Bud will benefit from InBev's distribution channels in Europe, Russia, China, and Brazil.

Fourth, isn't there some justice to this story... an American company takes a Czech name (Budweiser), and now it returns to Europe?

Fifth, unlike trade competition, foreign direct investment tends to be wholly beneficial for the recipient community. FDI usually means a potentially struggling company can benefit from capital and economies of scale--usually meaning more jobs for the domestic communities. In this case, the company's U.S. headquarters will stay in St. Louis. But the city may see some job losses from cost cutting programs:

"St. Louis will see some job losses," said Ilhan Geckil, senior economist in the Chicago office of Anderson Economic Group.

"Not brewing, blue-collar jobs. The taste of Budweiser is really important. No breweries will be closed."

Carlos Brito, CEO of InBev and now of Anheuser-Busch InBev, promised as much in a conference call with reporters Monday.

But he did say that A-B's cost-cutting plan, dubbed "Blue Ocean," which encourages early retirement among 13,000 employees among other efforts to reduce expenses, would still be executed.

Photo by Chris J.

Can the World's "Two Camps" Cooperate?

How can we best understand the current international system? Is it America in decline... a post-America world... world without the west... second world... rise of the rest... return of the rest... new Asian hemisphere...pluralistic hegemony... flat world? I think of the world as having many layers and therefore centers of gravity. At the Carnegie Council, George Washington University professor Harry Harding pitched a new framework for understanding the international system--one of two political parties (or camps). One party is elitist reformers led by the United States. The other party is the populist conservatives led by China and Russia.

Can these two parties cooperate? I agree with Harry that the stakes are too high for countries not to cooperate. Here is how he answers it.

Monday, July 7, 2008

U.S. Policy Debate about "Another Planet"

A column in the Australian by Paul Kelly nicely captured one of the essential points from the panel we held last week on "the rise of the rest" or "the return of the rest," as I put it. (You can watch our raw footage here.) As Kelly put it, policy nirvana is out of America's reach even under a McCain or Obama Administration. I think Flynt Leverett of the New America Foundation got the prize for the quote of the day. Here is how Kelly put it:

In his comments this week to the Carnegie Council workshop in New York, Leverett said that when US politicians talked about achieving energy independence, "either they don't understand how stupid that is or they do understand and say it anyway". He argued that the classic remedy to confront the US's declining currency was to raise interest rates and balance the budget, but there was no sign "that either McCain or Obama will do this". The US debate "was about some other planet from where we are now".

(Photo from NASA website.)

Friday, July 4, 2008

Japan as Efficiency Superpower

The New York Times today covered an issue that has interested me for a while now. The article is titled "Japan Sees a Chance to Promote Its Energy-Frugal Ways." I have argued in a chapter in Gal Luft's forthcoming book on energy security that Japan should aim to be an efficiency superpower, promoting its unique ethic of conservation or "mottainai." In other words, Japan can offer moral leadership by acting as a technological model and a departure point for global cooperation. Here are excepts of my chapter, which I presented in February of this year to the Tokyo-Reischauer Group, sponsored by Johns Hopkins SAIS and Tokyo Foundation:

Energy security concerns are nothing new in Japan. The oil embargo during World War II and the 1970s oil shocks shaped much of Japan’s recent history. Long the technology leader in Asia, Japan finds itself preparing for a future in which its energy policy must weigh increased global energy demand, emerging resource nationalism, and stagnating upstream development. Japanese energy policy is built upon an understanding that resources are finite. By putting efficiency at the center of its policies, the country is shaping the definition of energy security for the 21st century.

In the international context, Japanese energy security depends on the U.S. military’s protection of sea lanes for the transport of oil. But its overall policy mix has relied on global market mechanisms and domestic regulation. Japan’s homegrown efforts to achieve energy security revolve around efficiency and diversification. Since 1973, Japan’s energy intensity has improved by 37% and its oil dependency has dropped by 30 points, making Japan one of the largest, most-energy efficient economies in the world.

Given Japan’s oil dependence during this period, few countries were as affected as Japan was by the OPEC oil embargo of 1973. The resulting changes in the industrial landscape, the economic slowdown that followed, and dramatic increases in energy prices helped to mobilize the Japanese population in support of energy efficient policies. By the second oil shock six years later, Japan was in a position not only to weather the storm better than most developed countries, but also to capitalize on the world’s newfound desire for energy conservation by exporting fuel-efficient cars and other technology.

The mid-1970s saw a wave of energy-related legislation in Japan. Enacted in December 1973, the Emergency Law for the Stabilization of National Life gave the government the ability to set prices for everyday products during times of severe inflation.

Energy consumption in Japan’s industrial sector remained flat and conservation efforts plateaued in the 1990s, as Japanese manufacturers reached the upper limit of efficiency gains through the turnover of capital stock to more efficient machinery. An economic downturn and historically-low energy prices weakened the pressure to conserve, refocusing government efforts on energy concerns.

In 2005, the Japanese government introduced the “Cool Biz” campaign, which aimed to lower energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions by encouraging businessmen to wear lighter clothes and forgo wearing a tie in order to encourage a reduction in air-conditioning use. The campaign was introduced with a fashion show featuring captains of Japanese industry, based on the belief that in Japan’s hierarchical business culture the participation of upper management would increase the effectiveness of the campaign. The Environmental Ministry said the campaign led to a 1.4 million ton emissions reduction during the summer of 2007.

Another initiative that aims to increase energy efficiency by influencing consumption choices is the “Warm Biz” campaign, which encourages companies to set their heaters to 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit) in the winter.

Is Japan model transferable to foreign countries? Japan boasts top class technology for nuclear power and energy efficiency/conservation, with economic growth during times of rising energy costs. It has been cooperating with China on energy efficiency technology. On the other hand, some Japanese interviewees said though technology or regulations may be transferable, the Japanese spirit of “mottainai” (“don’t waste”) would be hard to transfer, or at least only mature societies with the willingness to pay for green power could do so. Nevertheless, some studies show that the Japanese willingness to pay for clean energy is about the same as it is in other countries.

Jimmy Carter might have been prescient about the risks to the environment but American culture did not take to the notion of conservation. Meanwhile, in Japan, the country underwent a conservation revolution. Many have argued that an incremental approach to energy and environmental problems would be insufficient. Given recent factors, such as increased demand and lack of infrastructure, driving up energy prices and the broader consensus on climate change, a national project for energy efficiency would be timely.

The current international order is witnessing the emergence of layers of power. I believe that thinking about the system in terms of "poles" is unhelpful. (Harry Harding recently argued that we might think of the system as two political parties: an elitist reform party led by the United States and a conservative populist party led by China and Russia.) A number of factors, such as the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and the recent changes in the energy markets have opened a window of opportunity for new power centers--the Middle East's financial power, Russia's influence over Europe, China's new role in East Asia, etc.

(I would like to thank Chris Janiec and Warren Wilczewski for their research assistance on this project.)

Photo by El Fotopakismo