Monthly Archives: November 2001

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Safire on the right side  

Sometimes consistent conservatives have a tremendous value. Bill Safire rails against president Bush and attorney general Ashcroft: “At a time when even liberals are debating the ethics of torture of suspects � weighing the distaste for barbarism against the need to save innocent lives � it’s time for conservative iconoclasts and card-carrying hard-liners to stand up for American values.”

The power of music 

I’d guess everyone was moved in different ways by the scenes from a liberated Kabul. The images of a child flying a kite struck me hard, but the notion that people could listen to instrumental music for the first time in years was particularly powerful.

The Guardian has a wonderful insight into the role of music in Afghanistan (with links to some audio files, as well). “No sooner had the Taliban left Kabul than the city resounded to the beat and keening melodies of Indian and Iranian songs, together with the long-hidden favourites of the Afghan popular canon.”

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Is anyone looking? 

You’d think that the steady disintegration of the world’s second largest economy would be a cause for comment. But because Japan’s problems are now longstanding, they are neglected like many running stories � they aren’t considered news.

Fortunately, Martin Wolf helps to set us straight. Martin provides a plausible solution to Japan’s lack of demand (plausible in the sense that, at a stretch, it might be adopted by policymakers).

The likelihood, however, is that the politicians and officials in Japan will continue to both dither and make wrong decisions, leading to an even worse economic crisis than they have now. That could at last set the stage for a healthy rebirth of the Japanese economy. It could, of course, also set the stage for a frightening, reactionary response in Japanese politics and society. I remain, though, an optimist against the evidence.

The issue that Martin doesn’t explore too deeply today (although he has done in previous columns) is raised in his second paragraph: “Japan’s experience in the decade since the end of its ‘bubble economy’ is an awful warning, one that the US Federal Reserve, struggling with a post-bubble economy of its own, has firmly in mind.”

Along with Martin, I don’t think the US will become another Japan, although there still seems to be considerable denial that it is suffering the hangover after the “benefits” of a bubble economy. But there remains a significant downside risk that consumer demand � the only thing keeping the US economy breathing right now � could evaporate, even with Fed rates down at 1% (which is where they are heading).

For a world where Japan is an economic non-starter at the moment, and Europe is moribund at best, a long period where the US engine remains in the sidings foretells tremendous economic woe ahead. And remember, I’m an optimist.

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Good news from Qatar  

According to the Financial Times, negotiators in Qatar are apparently close to a deal to launch a new trade liberalisation round. The deal will bridge some of the gap between the rich countries and the developing world on intellectual property rules.

I should have pointed yesterday to Larry Elliott’s column on the WTO. There have been many times in the past where I thought Elliott was a rock-solid indicator: if he said something, the opposite must be true. But I agree with him on the key issue for the WTO:

“Well now it is time for the west to put up or shut up. The altered state of the world since September 11 provides not just a golden opportunity but a prime motivation for the US, the European Union and the rest of the developed world to end their nauseating hypocrisy and take the concrete steps that are needed to make good their solemn promises. If the multilateral trading system is now facing a crisis of legitimacy it is not because of anti-globalisation protests but because the developed nations have said one thing and done another.”

I think Elliott also does a valuable job in pointing out, from a left-wing perspective, the crucial value of true trade liberalisation.


“The US has passed a $1,600 billion tax cut and is planning a huge fiscal stimulus package. The money is there, it is just a question of will power and priorities.” Jeff Sachs points out that the US government has so far pledged ony $300 million to the United Nations fund for diseases in poor countries.

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The lesson everyone should have learned  

“I trust that we will not hear again the argument that what happens in Afghanistan is of no relevance to someone living in Alabama, Amsterdam or Auckland.” Jim Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank, hopes governments now understand the need for vastly increased funding for development aid. The bank is proposing to double aid to $100 billion a year, to meet the goal of halving extreme poverty globally by 2015 (a deadline that has already been extended once).

A better suggestion box  

Dan Gillmor has some interesting thoughts on using the power of the network to combat terrorism, and other problems. “When the stakes are this high, and the threat this different, we should be looking for the best ideas wherever they originate. I’m betting that the center won’t hold if we waste the power at the edges.”

Curiouser and curiouser  

Greek authorities have arrested 12 British plane spotters on charges of spying. I’m not surprised that another country has no comprehension that there are Britons whose idea of fun is standing in an airport car park with a pair of binoculars, recording airplane numbers. This is a contemporary outgrowth of the far more common trainspotting (which has nothing to do with Irving Welsh’s book). Trainspotters, incidentally, are known as gricers (and this has apparently been extended to include tram and trolleybus spotters). I haven’t a clue on the derivation of the word.

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“Five million men fought in the British armed forces in the first world war. Today about 160 are still alive, the youngest of them 101.” Stephen Moss interviews three of the survivors. A wonderful reminder of what the war to end all wars (since we’re in the midst of a war to end all terrorism) was like.

Incidentally, I suspect that quite a few US viewers may have wondered why UK prime minister Tony Blair had an odd red paper flower in his lapel when he met president Bush on Wednesday. Like a significant percentage of people in the UK, he was wearing a poppy for Remembrarnce Day, which is always on the 11th of November. The Armistice for the first world war was signed at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month.

The poppy has briefly become an issue this week, because BBC World, the international television channel of the BBC, apparently bans its presenters from wearing the poppy, in the belief (I’m sure accurate) that global audiences will not know what it means and may misinterpret the symbol.


Nate Lewis, a chemist from CalTech who has been in Davos for the last two years, reckons “not all with white badges will be created equal in New York”. He’s right that the New York culture is antithetical to that kind of egalitarianism, but I’m reasonably confident that the Forum itself will fight the good fight in this regard.

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Counting the cost  

We are still in the early stages of the current war, but the World Bank has helpfully estimated the cost of eventually reconstructing (or maybe constructing would be a better term) the Afghan economy. It will exceed the $5.4 billion pledged for four years of reconstruction in Bosnia. According to the bank, landmine clearance alone could total $500 million.

The World Bank, the United Nations Development Program and the Asian Development Bank are holding a conference on Afghanistan’s reconstruction at the end of this month in Islamabad.

Different perspective  

Another Davos regular has written to me with a different perspective on the move of Davos to New York. He says it’s “a wonderful signal to the world”. I hope people take it in that spirit.

On worries that the Annual Meeting just won’t be the same, another friend sensibly takes the view that what matters is not the venue, but whether the Forum can “rise” to the extraordinary situation in the world today. If it can � and over the years, few organisations have been as good at rising to the occasion � then Davos 2002 will be vital, wherever it is held.

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The most serious newspaper in Switzerland, the Neue Zuercher Zeitung, seems relatively unperturbed by the loss of the 2002 Davos (incidentally, you can get a rough and ready translation of the page here). What they are concerned about, is that the Forum returns to Switzerland in 2003.

The Tagesanzeiger has a poll on their site to solicit opinion. 28% of respondents reckon the Forum should be abolished in any case, 13% say it should stay in New York, and 11% say, “poor Switzerland”.

I’ve polled some people who I think truly understand Davos for their reactions. The most eloquent response so far has come from Steve Kobrin, a professor at The Wharton School. Steve writes, “It was a bit like the musical Brigadoon, a less than completely real community that came together once a year. I think that we will lose that sense of community and magic in a hotel in NYC. There just is something about coming out of the Congress Center to sunshine and snow that the Waldorf can’t match.”

Another friend feels that, however sad the move, the Forum could not afford a flop in Davos. This way, if it doesn’t go according to plan, they can say it was a noble experiment that didn’t work.

New York, New York  

Okay, a day away from the computer and I miss the biggest Davos story in years. Forum president Klaus Schwab is holding a news conference today in New York (5pm at the Waldorf, if you want to go) with mayor Giuliani and governor Pataki. They will announce that the 2002 “Davos” will be in New York.

I have no privileged information, so I feel free to speculate. The official reason will be the Forum’s deep-seated desire to show solidarity with the victims of terrorism. Secondarily, the Swiss will be blamed for being unwilling to provide the necessary security. And those reasons will be sincere. But I suspect the motivation for this extraordinary move is that too many people were indicating they wouldn’t come to Davos, Switzerland at the end of January.

The 2002 Annual Meeting (to give it its official title) was going to be exceptional, because of the events of 11 September. So I hope this exceptional Davos will be a huge success in a different setting. But I am gloomy about the prospects. Why?

The isolated village in the mountains is an intrinsic part of Davos’s character and success. I wouldn’t have kvetched if it had been some other mountain fastness, but Manhattan is about as far from that as it would be possible to get on Earth.

Medieval philosophers thought there was value in making knowledge difficult to acquire. First, it would exclude the unworthy. Second, the very fact that a struggle was necessary to reach knowledge would be a part of the value. Davos is like that (both the exclusion and the greater result thanks to the struggle). Everyone, even the president of the United States, has a difficult journey to get to Davos. Once there, they are, to an unusual degree, stuck with each other.

Unlike a conference (and Davos is never a conference), you can’t hop out to some other meeting. Zurich is three hours away; even a helicopter takes the best part of an hour. You are guaranteed to bump into most of the people you want to see on the street, in the lobbies of the handful of hotels, even the ski lift on Sunday morning.

In New York, despite what I am sure will be gargantuan efforts by the Forum, the Annual Meeting will be a conference. Participants will arrive in a fleet of limousines from apartments and hotels scattered all over a vast city. They will come and go (“I just have to take care of a few things in the office�”), and there will a desperate loss of the serendipity that drives Davos.

And, although I love New York (I was born in Brooklyn), the New York style is antithetical to Davos. Despite the stellar cast assembled in the mountains each year, Davos is emphatically not glitzy, not celebrity-driven, not about the media spotlight. And in Davos, mayor Bloomberg (!) would not be given a major stage.

This just in� 

Klaus Schwab has issued an email to participants explaining the reasons. You’ll find it here. The additional news is Davos in New York will be shorter than usual: from Thursday to Monday, rather than Tuesday.

In a press release subsequent to Klaus’s email, Klaus says the Forum will return to Davos in 2003. He goes on to say, “Davos has been home to the Forum’s Annual Meeting for 31 years and the intimacy of the mountain setting has been conducive to solving a number of world crises in the past. But these are extraordinary times, and we feel an extraordinary response is both necessary and appropriate. So we’ll have ‘Davos in New York’ in 2002.”

View from the limousine 

Martin Wolf has a sobering assessment of the inequities of today’s world. Those of us who live in the developed world, he writes, are travelling in a stretch limousine in an urban ghetto. And we’re not minded to give up our privileged position: “Naturally, the elite has no intention of giving up what it has. Which elite ever has? The domestic politics of elite countries are about obtaining still more.”

But we’re a steadily shrinking group, he points out. In 50 years, we will be only 13% of the world’s population. Martin’s conclusion? “It is necessary to contemplate the risks and challenges that lie ahead with intellectual rigour and courage, not with the wishful thinking that marked the 1990s.”

Get a grip  

Today’s Financial Times has an ad from the one-time great hope of British technology, Autonomy. The copy line, in scary, bold type, runs, “One of the top five pharmaceutical companies doesn’t use Autonomy. Will it survive?”

Get off it. I wouldn’t be bothered if Autonomy told me it helps companies become more efficient or even, whatever it means, better. But to claim its product is essential for survival is laughable, and would be irresponsible if it weren’t so blatantly false.

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Hard road  

UK prime minister Tony Blair is having a difficult trip through the Middle East, seeking continued support for the allied actions against terrorism. In Syria yesterday, Bashar al-Assad railed against the bombing of Afghanistan and supported groups like Hizbollah. Today, in Israel, prime minister Ariel Sharon launched into a predictable attack on Syria, probably negating any conceivable benefit Blair’s overture to Assad might have created.

There are some who pretend that Assad, the son of late president Hafez Assad, is a young reformer in the mould of king Abdullah of Jordan, king Mohamed VI of Morocco and crown prince Salman bin Hamad of Bahrain. But the shaky regime of the young Assad seems determined to keep his country both economically and politically retarded.

Should a peaceful resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict ever be reached, one of the additional good consequences would be removing the last prop from failed regimes like Syria’s.

Good title for Halloween 

Tim Jackson provides a surprisingly kind review of Boo Hoo, Ernst Malmgren’s own account of the speedy rise and fall of His conclusion? The founders were more fools than knaves.

I’m sure he’s right, on the whole. But I’m not entirely convinced in the light of yesterday’s Guardian interview with Malmgren and co-founder Kajsa Leander. To a question about their trips on Concorde (which I saw in the skies above London about 20 minutes ago � still a thrilling sight), Leander responded that she only used it three times, and “they were all special offers”. Certainly fools, but given that it was other people’s money they were blowing, rather knavish as well.