Monthly Archives: July 2002

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Save the whales? 

I’m as concerned as anyone to protect the dwindling number of whales on this planet. But I have mixed feelings about the efforts to save the beached whales on Cape Cod.

As far as I can tell, there’s nothing unnatural about these mass beachings. We can probably reckon they have been happening for millennia. Sometimes animals die through their own mistakes, or through unfortunate natural phenomena. Should we try to interfere in this natural cycle?

Weblogs and the media 

Howard Kurtz, media critic of The Washington Post, recognises bloggers as providing “a kind of instant feedback loop for media corporations that came of age in an era of one-way communications”. In the way of these things, he focuses mostly on outpourings from bloggers on the right of the political spectrum.

Two for one 

Tom Friedman takes a brief look at what an invasion of Iraq might mean for the oil price.

He mentions in passing the possibility of a soaring oil price, but doesn’t really look at what that might mean for a world economy that is stuttering along at the moment. He does, however, examine more closely what a plunging price might mean.

“A quick victory that brings Iraq fully back into the oil market could lead to a sharp fall in oil incomes throughout OPEC that could seriously weaken the oil cartel and rob its many autocratic regimes of the income they need to maintain their closed political systems. In fact, give me sustained $10-a-barrel oil and I’ll give you revolutions from Iran to Saudi Arabia, and throw in Venezuela. If that scenario prevails, you could look at an invasion of Iraq as a possible two-for-one sale: destroy Saddam and destabilize OPEC at the same time.”

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Tennessee as Argentina 

“The only reason Tennessee doesn’t look like Argentina right now is that it isn’t a sovereign nation.” Paul Krugman dissects that cooked books of state administrations and reckons the federal government is now heading down the same, disastrous path.

Thinking the unthinkable 

“Think the unthinkable: turn off 3G.” Peter Martin (subscription only) wants telecoms and other CEOs to spend their holidays pondering difficult business questions. I agree with a lot of his conclusions, but I don’t think hard-pressed executives should spend their holidays worrying about them.

Holidays are precisely for getting away from the everyday. I once worked in an organisation where the CEO annually returned from his August break with new strategic insights. Some were good, others less good. But I felt, as did many of my colleagues, “Why can’t he get a life outside his work?”

So pace Peter Martin, here’s my advice for leaders heading off for their holidays. Read books that have nothing to do with your job. Real novels (not airport blockbuster rubbish) and poetry are particularly good. Spend undistracted time with your family. Don’t check into the office or email. Learn that your organisation will be fine in your absence, that the world doesn’t stop when you go away.

Anti-gravity 

The Financial Times is usually a sober newspaper, so I was unprepared to read an article about research into anti-gravity devices. Surely some mistake?

It seems not. According to Nick Cook from Jane’s Defence Weekly, Boeing and others are funding research into “gravity modification”. As the article points out, if anti-gravity devices were possible we would have a limitless source of energy. Never say never where science is concerned, but I am sceptical that this research will produce results in my or my children’s lifetimes. It just seems too much of a stretch from what we (or at least I) know about physics.

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Remembering Rudi 

An occasional contributor to World Link, Rudi Dornbusch, died last week.

Rudi was that supposed rarity, a colourful, funny economist. He was also, as many tributes are now testifying, one of the best and most influential economists of our time.

From my narrow perspective Rudi had the wonderful asset of always ruffling feathers, whether it was tearing into the incompetence of monetary authorities in Latin America or east Asia, or rubbishing the prospects for the German economy. The last was a particular sore point in my world, since it led to a temporary diktat not to invite Rudi to Davos, because he had so offended some of the German business and political titans who were a core constituency for the Forum.

The ban was a particular pity because Rudi was such a good Davos performer, whether as an expert on a panel or as a moderator, where he had the rare skill of simultaneously moving a discussion along and provoking disagreements and good humour all around. I particularly remember him decreeing at the beginning of some session that anyone whose mobile phone rang during the session would be required to ask a question — and then enforcing the ruling on some (I hope temporarily) unhappy executive.

World Link 1987-2002 

I returned from a weekend away to find a message on my answer machine. “Did you hear they’ve closed World Link?”

I’m not privy to the details of the decision, but I know enough about the parties involved to figure it out. Since 1992, World Link has been published in a joint venture between the World Economic Forum and Euromoney Institutional Investor. I ran the JV from its creation until late in 2000. Like all JVs, World Link had its ups and downs as interests and motives of the partners shifted.

Euromoney’s motives were easy to understand. A public company, it was interested in a profitable venture. After small losses in 1992, World Link has been consistently profitable (at times, very profitable). I’m certain, however, that the current advertising recession is hitting World Link hard, so I suspect profits this year would have been pretty scanty at best.

The Forum’s impetus was different. It was happy about the profits (the five years of World Link before the JV posted consistent losses, which were a drain on the Forum and a number of other investors), but that was not why WEF was involved. The Forum wanted a magazine that reflected and promoted its aspirations, notably the simple cause of “improving the state of the world”. It’s easy to mock the Forum’s grand vision, but it is sincerely held and, I believe, the organisation has over the years done far more good than many other grander, better resourced entities.

But how all that translates into a magazine is more problematical. My goal was to create an interesting mix of articles — both journalistic and expert-written essays — that reflected the ethos (as I saw it) of the Forum. The fun part, from an editor’s perspective, was that the wide-ranging interests represented by the Forum meant we could write about a bewildering variety of topics. I sometimes described World Link in shorthand as Harvard Business Review meets Foreign Affairs, but the content roamed further afield than that.

A fair criticism of that approach, and one voiced at times of stress in the relationship by the Forum, was that World Link lacked a clear identity — other than its tie to the Forum. Because the Forum was acutely sensitive to charges that commercial gain was being extracted from its “brand” — the Forum is a not-for-profit foundation — the fact that World Link was trading on the Forum name was always a sore point. From World Link’s perspective, we were “the magazine of the World Economic Forum”, and proud of it. (After all, HBR gains commercially from having Harvard in its title. It’s notable that no other management magazine does a tenth as well commercially. It’s not just because of editorial and publishing skills. The Harvard name is resonant — and I’m saying that as a loyal Princetonian.)

What this added up to now is a magazine struggling for profitability in a recession (like many others), and the Forum feeling irritated at the ties to a publication with which it no longer felt deeply involved. So I’ll hazard a guess that neither JV partner reckoned it was worth expending much energy on nurturing World Link any longer.

I’m saddened by this, but unsurprised. Very few JVs last forever, and the mix of a commercial shareholder and a foundation shareholder was particularly difficult. I feel particularly for the current staff of the magazine, which just brought out a relaunch issue. There are some very talented people there — a number of whom I worked with for many years. I’ll always have some of my heart with World Link, even if that means just memories of shared efforts rather than a publication that I receive every other month.

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Bridging the culture gap 

Martin Wainwright provides a valuable tonic for relations between Islam and the west. “Without the work of a 500-year succession of Islamic sages, we would have lost the essence of Aristotle, much of Plato and scores of other ancients.”

There are many other debts we have to Islamic civilisation, of course, but the story of how the basis of western philosophy was only preserved thanks to Islam is fascinating. I want to know more about Abu Ali Ibn Sina, or Avicenna as his name has been anglicised.

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Well done World Link 

My old stamping ground, World Link, has just had a relaunch. It might seem natural for me to rue the passing of a visual era I initiated in 1992, but I think congratulations are well deserved to the team on the magazine (the website doesn’t — yet — reflect the new design, other than the cover image).

I’ve only had a quick scan of the content, but I hope my ex-colleagues and the new editor, Philippe Legrain, won’t mind if at some point I send them some detailed comments. In my years as editor, I thirsted for detailed feedback, which is a very rare phenomenon.

Rhinoceroses 

Paul Krugman reckons the rhinoceroses have not only taken over the country, but also most of the weblogs.

I fear he’s right, but I’m equally certain that the plural of rhinoceros (in English, as opposed to Latin) is rhinoceroses, not rhinoceri.

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Sad lives 

Today’s Wall Street Journal has a funny/sad story (subscription only) about how people’s lives have been affected by the market slump. In some relationships, there is a new “six-word battle cry: ‘I told you we should sell!’”

There’s the story of Sheldon Cohn in Michigan: “Mr. Cohn keeps his sanity by focusing on things he can control. His two young sons battle every night about who gets to put toothpaste on his toothbrush first. ‘Our net worth is down 50%, and I can’t do anything about that,’ he says. ‘So I just focus on the toothpaste.’”

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Taking down a peg 

“Some critics are concerned about the way the CEO-as-hero is evolving into the CEO-as-saviour,” notes the Financial Times. I should think they are. Just as the idea of a heroic CEO was always nonsensical, so the saviour role is absurd. Fortunately, so low has the reputation of CEOs sunk (too low, but it’s an understandable reaction after years of being too high) that I don’t think the public will wear a situation where the CEO is the poacher turned gameskeeper.

The same analysis in the FT reckons there is very little chance in the near future that leaders at major US corporations will give up their dual role of CEO and chairman. According to Ira Millstein, the problem is one of prestige: “without the chairmanship they would feel as though they had been demoted”.

Most other countries follow the practice of splitting the roles. But US executives do have an argument when they point to the comparative performance of US versus non-US corporations. Over the years, the US record is generally superior. But drastic times may call for drastic solutions, and I think it’s hard to argue that concentrating power in one individual is the reason for US outperformance.

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Counting the problems 

I’m reading High Noon by Jean-Francois Rischard, the World Bank’s vice-president for Europe. The subtitle of the book is “20 global problems, 20 years to solve them”. I hope Jean-Francois is right that we have that much time, for his list is certainly daunting.

He groups the 20 inherently global issues (IGIs) under three categories: sharing our planet (issues involving the global commons), sharing our humanity (issues requiring a global commitment) and sharing our rule book (issues needing a global regulatory approach). I find his framework useful and his list is certainly compelling, with problems ranging from the well-recognised (global warming, water deficits, global infectious diseases, poverty, illegal drugs, IPR) to the less-talked about (fisheries depletion, education for all, reinventing taxation).

The brief summaries of the 20 problems provide a good overview, but the pith of Jean-Francois’s argument is his novel approach for confronting these issues. He argues for global issues networks set up to tackle each problem. Probably the closest prior example of a GIN was the World Commission on Dams, which did a pretty good job of dealing with a messy, confrontational issue and changing many of the parameters for large hydroelectric projects in the developing world (too late for some horrific projects, sadly).

What the proposal needs is for a G8 leader to latch on to the concept and create one or two GINs. If they worked, it could lead to more. As Jean-Francois points out, the alternatives have proved fairly unhelpful in truly global issues. Treaties and conventions are too slow, intergovernmental conferences are messy and poor on follow-up, G-x type mechanisms are limited in methodology, knowledge and representation and the global multilateral institutions (like Jean-Francois’s own World Bank) know they can’t handle IGIs alone.

Whatever you think of his prescriptions, anyone who cares about the future of our world could profit from reading High Noon. I liked the book jacket blurb which suggested, “Every university student should think about Rischard’s 20 problems, take a deep breath, and then commit to make a contribution to solving at least one.”

Blog competition 

I think it’s notable that The Guardian is running a competition for the best British weblog. What’s interesting isn’t so much the competition itself, but Simon Waldman’s explanation of why they are doing it.

“Not every blog is brilliantly written or designed. But you can also find wit, imagination and flair in abundance — not to mention links to some of the corners of the net that you might stand little chance of finding yourself. The sheer energy and diversity of all this effort has become one of the great wonders of the web.”

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In the deep 

The word schadenfreude may have been invented to describe how sensible people are feeling about Dick Cheney right now.

One of the best recent comments I’ve found on his situation is in Talking Points Memo. The problem, according to Joshua Marshall, is that Cheney only knows how to be a von Clausewitz; there’s no indirection (as Hamlet said, “use indirection to find direction out”). “Cheney’s problem right now is that these new charges don’t really require Dems or anybody else to run with them. They speak for themselves. He’s got no one to whack. No one to attack. So he and his crew don’t know what to do.”

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Economic illiteracy 

Brad DeLong is on the warpath about economic illiteracy in journalism. He savages The New York Times’s Steven Erlanger: “In his headline and opening paragraphs, Steven Erlanger managed to tell his readers precisely zero of the seven interesting and important economic implications of the recent rise in the euro against the dollar. Instead he talks about a ‘psychological victory’ felt continent-wide by Europeans. Is it any wonder that the state of economic knowledge and economic debate is so lousy, if this is what newspapers feed us?”

He exempts The Economist from his criticisms in another entry.

Worry 

Two commentators I read regularly have reached the same conclusion: fall stock markets present a truly serious threat to the world economy. What’s particularly worrying about this is that usually Martin Wolf and Larry Elliott have nothing in common.

In fact, I usually read Elliott to get a good steer on what’s not going to happen. Yesterday he declared we could be facing “the most critical moment for the global economy since the 1930s”. Martin Wolf isn’t quite so dramatic (subscription only). He focuses on the danger that the US recovery could be knocked off course, and “any break in the US recovery would create big dangers for the world as a whole”.

Martin also makes the piquant juxtaposition of two quotes. “The fundamental business of the country, that is production and distribution of commodities, is on a sound and prosperous basis.” “I want you to know the economy, our economy, is fundamentally strong.” The first is Herbert Hoover in 1929. The second president Bush on Monday.