Monthly Archives: June 2005

Amity Shlaes has really done it this time

There have been times where I thought Amity Shlaes, the Financial Times’s US-based, undeviatingly right-wing columnist, couldn’t move further into the realm of the absurd. I was wrong.

Today Shlaes chooses to comment on Tony Blair’s rather fruitless trip to Washington last week. Here’s her explanation of what the Bush administration is doing on aid:

The US, along with other countries, has signed a declaration to increase aid to 0.7 per cent of gross domestic product, something like $80bn in the American case. Other countries have criticised the Bush administration for not producing a plan to show how it will meet that goal. But the administration believes that democracy is the best form of aid in the long run, and that it is in Iraq or Afghanistan to bring about democracy. It believes these things so strongly that it is willing to send soldiers to corners of Iraq and Afghanistan from which even the most courageous aid groups have already withdrawn. The Senate recently passed legislation for additional military spending. The amount of that spending was $80bn. In other words, Washington is doing its part.

So don’t believe that guff about the US being stingy. Why should Amity stop at a paltry $80 billion. Heck, the US spends nearly a half trillion dollars a year on defence. Shouldn’t that mostly count as promoting democracy? That would put the US way beyond anyone’s benchmark.

Where the US comes up short

Via David Isenberg, I came across this wonderful Walt Mossberg column on the cellular gatekeepers in the US:

In the U.S., the wireless phone carriers have used their ownership of networks to sharply restrict what technologies can actually reach users.

I call these cellphone companies the new Soviet ministries, because they are reminiscent of the Communist bureaucracies in Russia that stood athwart the free market for decades. Like the real Soviet ministries, these technology middlemen too often believe they can decide better than the market what goods consumers need.

Of course, the cellphone carriers aren’t Communists, and they aren’t evil. They spent billions of dollars to acquire and build their networks. They have every right to want to manage these networks carefully and to earn a fair return on their investments on behalf of their shareholders.

Also, these companies often subsidize the cost of the phones consumers buy, so they feel they have a right to decide what products reach consumers.

However, I believe that, in the name of valid business goals, the U.S. carriers are exercising far too much control over the flow of new technologies into users’ hands. In an ideal world, any tech company with a new cellphone, or with software to run on cellphones, should be able to sell it directly to users. These customers would then separately buy plans from the cellphone companies allowing those devices to work on the networks.

But that isn’t how it works. In most cases, manufacturers must get the network operators’ approval to sell hardware that runs on their networks, and carriers don’t allow downloading of software onto phones unless they supply it themselves. I once saw a sign at the offices of a big cellphone carrier that said, “It isn’t a phone until ‘Harry’ says it’s a phone.” But why should it be up to Harry (a real carrier employee whose name I have changed)? Why shouldn’t the market decide whether a device is a good phone?

I’m in the midst of exactly this experience. As part of our move to California, I’ve been looking at cellular phones and the packages that surround them. In the UK, it’s pretty easy. Any phone will work on any network providing you have a SIM card. Of course the network operators try to entice you by offering special deals on phones, but that’s the market in action. It’s not a restriction of my freedom.

What I can’t seem to do here is use my UK-bought Nokia phone with the US-acquired T-Mobile SIM card I now have. That’s not a problem for me, since my business has us all on BlackBerrys, which works pretty well. But I thought I could just get a SIM card for my wife’s phone. No such luck.

In so many ways, American life is very easy (for those of us fortunate enough to have jobs and money). Things work smoothly and technology is generally advanced. That’s to be expected in the richest nation on earth. What’s not expected is the number of areas where US technology compares woefully to poor, benighted Britain: the structure of mobile telephony, the comparative underdevelopment of digital television, the absence of digital radio and congestion charging are the four things that spring immediately to mind.

What could $1 trillion buy?

Scanning my BBC newsfeed headlines this morning, I was struck by one juxtaposition. World scientists urge CO2 action was right next to Weapons spending tops $1 trillion.

I’m usually wary of simplistic equations in the form “if only 10% of spending on x were spent on y”. But particularly on the day when Tony Blair is going to get cold comfort from president Bush on significantly increased aid to Africa and even colder comfort on climate change, the news that we collectively spend $1 trillion on weapons (the US alone accounts for 47% of the total) strikes home.

Sadly, some of the weapons spending is necessary. I’m not a pacifist, and even though I’m sceptical about the so-called Global War on Terrorism, I want to make sure that the good guys do have the means to combat the bad guys. But $1 trillion buys a lot of weaponry, most of it, I suspect, of little relevance to fighting the non-state actors behind most terrorist threats.

As the combined science academies declared in the other headline that caught my eye, there is another threat facing everyone on the planet. I don’t have the figures for what we spend collectively on responding to greenhouse gas emissions, but the total budget for the US Department of Energy — which has primary responsibility for funding research on new energy technologies (as well as looking after the US nuclear weapons program and much else) — is only $24.3 billion, which shows how low in the Washington pecking order it is.

If you’re a climate change denier reading this, I think you’re profoundly wrong (and there’s an absolutely overwhelming scientific consensus behind my view). But even if you don’t think climate change is serious, the world is really facing a simple choice. We can let the experiment of increasing carbon in the atmosphere continue to run and see what the consequences are. When we find out, it will be way too late to do anything about it. Or we can take action to stabilize carbon concentrations over the next couple of decades.

Have a look at Nate Lewis’s calculations to understand our options. There aren’t as many routes out of our mess as many people think. We need to start putting serious money into finding viable, non-carbon emitting technologies. Just think what a fraction of that $1 trillion could do.

Dealing with comment spam and Vale of Glamorgan Conservatives

Like many others, I occasionally suffer from comment spam. Fortunately, WordPress has a nifty option where you can list any words that should trigger holding a comment in a moderation queue, or even blacklisting it. There’s even a helpful list of common spam words in the WordPress Codex.

What, however, is Vale of Glamorgan Conservatives doing in the list? Of course I’d regard anything from the Conservative party as spam, but still…

The true meaning of postponed

I was amused to see that UK foreign secretary Jack Straw announced that the referendum on the European constitution was “postponed”. That seems to suggest that it will be rescheduled one day.

Does anyone really expect that to happen? My old stamping ground, the World Economic Forum, never ever cancelled an event. If something went wrong politically or commercially a Forum meeting would be “postponed”. I have this image of some loyal Forum participants hanging on many, many years later, wondering when that meeting date is going to be reconfirmed.

Badda Bing airlines

I’ve become a big fan of Jet Blue airlines. I flew Oakland-New York yesterday and the back today. That’s not usually the nicest experience, flying roughly five hours each way.

But Jet Blue is wonderful. They have tons of leg room (in fact they cleverly provide more legroom in the rows beyond the first few, to encourage people to fill the back of the plane). There’s nothing more important for flight comfort than leg room. They have DirectTV beamed direct to the plane, so on the flight back today I was able to watch Rafael Nadal take apart Roger Federer in the French Open semi-final (this could be a rivalry for the ages). In JFK airport they provide free Wi-Fi.

And they have a sense of humor. Shortly before we left the gate in NY, they made an announcement: “If Oakland isn’t in your travel plans today, please make yourself known to the cabin crew.” Our airplane, to top it all, was named the Badda Bing Badda Blue.