Monthly Archives: January 2011

One last thing on Google Reader

In addition to my posts on this blog, be sure to note my shared Google reader items.  They’re on the blog page one the left down from the top:



Tools to Blog by

I can think of about 3 or 4 things I’d really recommend to my fellow bloggers:

1. Google readers at:

This is a great way to follow other blogs and interesting sites on the net in a small amount of time.  New entries in a blog are presented in lists of the titles that can be for many blog with entries in chronological order, or you can drill down to just one site or blog.  You can toggle between reading the whole articles or reading just the titles.  Using firefox and greasemonkey, you can tailor the look and feel with add-on scripts as well.

This where I read the post that inspired my pevious post here:


2. Live Writer:

WordPress is a pretty powerful platform, even just using the free version as I do.  But especially writing in the free version is kind of hard.  Your text is embedded in a lot of distraction and doesn’t look it like it does when you post. 

Live writer gives more of a what you see is what get feel.  It also makes it easier to add videos, pictures and links.


I find it easier to format my text as well.  I suspect most of what I do with it can be done without it, but I think it’s easier.

3. Feed Demon:

This one isn’t on a plane with the other two.  It kind of repackages Google reader results.  However, it does make it easier to go from Reader to Live Writer, and you may prefer its format to Google reader alone.


US Decline to Normalacy, and its need to accept being Ordinary

Good advice.  America has a proud history and has accomplished many great things.  Defeating fascism, ending slavery, creating a long lasting democracy.  But we need to face up to the fact that we’re only human just like every other damn nation.

From Crooked Timbers (edited and emphasis added)

There was another round of the more-or-less endless debate about the decline of the US …

As a public service, I’d like to bring an end to this tiresome debate by observing that the decline of the US from its 1945 position of global pre-eminence has already happened. The US is now a fairly typical advanced/developed country, distinguished primarily by its large population[1]. Precisely because the US is comparable to other advanced countries in many crucial respects, there is no reason to expect any further decline. [2]

In geopolitical terms, the US spends a lot more on its military than anyone else (in fact, more than everyone else put together) and (contrary to the beliefs of most Americans) hardly anything on development aid or other efforts at promoting global public goods. The amount of sustainable influence generated as a result appears pretty trivial. The number of places in the world where the US can directly determine, or even substantially influence, political outcomes is approximately zero…

On the other hand, it has to be conceded that the record of non-military aid and public good promotion is not exactly one of stellar success either. The fact is that the world is a complicated and intractable place, and running your own country is hard enough – the fact that international efforts work as well as they do is more surprising than the fact that so many fail…

The main implication of all this, for me, is that Americans should stop worrying about relative “decline”, “competitiveness” and so on, and start focusing on making the US a better place to live.

When we forget that and we become fixated with Amercian Exceptionalism, we do stupid things, such as:  trying to impose democracy at gun point.  We become drunk on the idea that we can always shape the world to our liking.  We feel we have the right to do so too.

We also become fearful about losing these powers we didn’t have, and shouldn’t want.  We can’t accept our ordinariness.  It’s a human failing I suppose, after all the Catholic church couldn’t accept that the Earth isn’t at the center of the solar system.  Science once believed that Earth was rarely struck by meteorites, that we were different than the Moon with its obvious evidence of impacts.

Accepting that we are ordinary doesn’t mean that we should never attempt the extraordinary sometimes.  But before we enter onto any extraordinary quest, we should think long and hard.  We’ve entered or slid into a lot of stupid quests since the end of the second world war. 

Vietnam was a war that if we had avoided, I don’t think you can argue anyone would have been worse off.   We’d have the same communist Vietnam and thousand would still be alive. 

Korea given the odious North may have been worth fighting, but if we hadn’t I wonder if a unified Korea wouldn’t include the nuclear capacity wielded by an insane family line as we do now. 

The first Gulf war was I think done right.  We worked with our allies.  We had a clear national interest at stake.  We had a clear and limited objective and a well though out plan to achieve it.

The Afghanistan war started well, but I think may have veered too much into nation building that may be beyond our grasp.

Iraq was and is a train wreak.  We had no clear interest.  We had no plan.  We have attempted something beyond our ability, and even if we could do it, its not clear we should.

What is Egypt like?


What is Egypt like?
Jason Shafrin
Sun, 30 Jan 2011 06:17:37 GMT

Egypt has taken over the news as protests have spread throughout the country.  One of Cairo main squares (Midan Tahrir) is the focal point where protesters have been expressing their discontent with current president (and dictator) Hosni Mubarak.

What is Egypt like?  Ironically, I just returned from a trip to Egypt less than a month ago. Today, I’ll give you my perspective.

Since I have only been to Cairo, I can only comment on that city.  Cairo is large, chaotic, poor and dirty city.    The city’s heart is the Nile, although Western hotels tend to dominate much of the riverfront property. There is a metro system, but it is somewhat limited for a city of Cairo’s size (8 million people).  The city is actually a good walking city, but you put your life at risk every time you cross the street (there are no crosswalks and I only saw two traffic lights the whole time I was in Cairo).  About ninety percent of the people walking around  the streets are men so Western women may feel somewhat uncomfortable.  Most–but not all–women wear headscarves. I found, however, that the people were very friendly and had a really great sense of humor.

Most Egyptians are Muslim, but about 10% of Egyptians are Coptic Christian.  The bombing of a Coptic Church in Alexandria on New Year’s Day brought some tensions to the forefront.  Many Coptic Christians claimed that they are discriminated against.  A Christian tour guide I met said that this is somewhat of a problem.  Most of the Muslims I talked to said that Egypt is tolerant of Copts, but how tolerant I am not sure.

To get an idea of the sentiments of the “common man” in Egypt, I recommend reading Taxi by Khaled Al Khamissi.  The book is an entertaining, heart-wrenching, and funny account of taxi drivers in Cairo.  The drivers must deal with horrendous traffic, government corruption, and limited economic prospects.  The most famous Egyptian author, however, is Nobel prize winner Naguib Mahfouz.  I read Midaq Alley which was very good, but his masterpiece is the Cairo Trilogy (which I have not read).

Tyler Cowen lists his favorite things about Egypt.  Although he didn’t think the food was anything special, I though the food I had was generally very good.  Especially the mezze dishes.  I do have to agree, however, that “Intellectually and culturally, Cairo has been punching below its weight for a long time.”

This is a time for Egyptians to create their own democracy.  Let’s hope they are able to seize this opportunity.

What is Egypt like?
Jason Shafrin
Sun, 30 Jan 2011 06:17:37 GMT

My Other Blog is …

About movies and entertainment.

Given my small readership this may seem a little audacious.  But I blog mostly for myself anyway, and I wanted a place for entertainment oriented material than I would see as the focus of this blog.  Also, I wanted to experiment with bloggers as a platform (no I don’t think I’ll leave wordpress).  At blogger you can edit your templates without paying for an upgrade.  If that seems worth it, I might pay for the upgrade here.

You’ll find the new blog at:

Come visit. Not a lot to see yet though.

The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission's Report and Corporate Governance


This from Stephen Bainbridge.

The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission’s report repeatedly identifies corporate governance failures as a causal factor in the crisis of 2007-2008. At page 19, for example, the report opines that:

We conclude dramatic failures of corporate governance and risk management at many systemically important financial institutions were a key cause of this crisis.

It’s probably the case that there were corporate governance breakdowns at some specific firms. Lehman and AIG spring to mind. On close examination, however, the evidence is hardly conclusive.

Yet, on close examination, the evidence turns up some very curious findings. First, the U.K.’s corporate governance regime is generally regarded as more shareholder empowering than is the U.S., which in the minds of many governance activists makes it superior. If governance failures were a key factor in the crisis, one thus would expect the U.K. to have been less susceptible than the U.S. Yet, the U.K. went through essentially the same financial crisis as the U.S. at about the same time. Accordingly, while governance practices “such as independent board chairs and ‘say on pay’ votes have been available to U.K. shareholders for years,” they apparently did “did little to prevent the crisis or mitigate its effects on the U.K. financial system.” Christopher M. Bruner, Corporate Governance in a Time of Crisis 25 (2010),

Second, there is some evidence that corporate governance standards widely regarded as best practice were actually associated with poorer performance during the crisis. A study by USC business school professors Erkens, Hung, and Matos of 296 financial institutions in 30 countries found that board independence and high institutional investor ownership, which we’ll see in chapters that follow are usually assumed to be good practices, were associated with poor stock performance during the crisis. They further found that financial institutions with more independent boards were more likely to raise equity capital during the crisis, which ultimately resulted in a wealth transfer from shareholders to creditors. As for institutional ownership, higher levels thereof were associated with greater risk taking, which ultimately resulted in greater losses. David Erkens et al., Corporate Governance in the 2007-2008 Financial Crisis: Evidence from Financial Institutions Worldwide (Sept. 2010),

A study by Beltratti and Stulz found no evidence that banks with higher scores on the Institutional Shareholder Services’ Corporate Governance Quotient performed better than lower-scoring firms. Beltratti and Stulz attributed the crisis to flawed bank capital structures, instead of corporate governance failures. Banks that relied on long-term sources of capital fared better than those that relied on short-term funding. Andrea Beltratti & Rene M. Stulz, Why did some banks perform better during the credit crisis? A Cross-Country Study of the Impact of Governance and Regulation (ECGI Finance Working Paper No. 254/2009),

We can draw a couple of important conclusions from this evidence. First, what constitutes good corporate governance depends on which constituency’s interests one is seeking to advance. Governance regimes that advantage shareholders may not be good for taxpayers. Yet, virtually all of the reforms mandated after the financial crises of the last decade were designed to empower shareholders. The risk thus is that the reforms may make the next crisis more likely and potentially more severe.

Second, one size does not fit all in corporate governance. The problems of Wall Street and Main Street are quite different and may require quite different solutions. Yet, the reforms of the last decade almost without exception are one size fits all mandates from which derogation by private ordering is not allowed.

The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission’s Report and Corporate Governance
Steve Bainbridge
Thu, 27 Jan 2011 23:14:50 GMT

The end of the Arab exception?

From John Quiggin

Looking at the downfall of the dictatorship in Tunisia, and the exploding protests against the Mubarak regime in Egypt, it’s obviously hard for Western/Northern commentators to say much about what is happening now and will happen. In part that reflects the cultural and political distances involved, and in part the opaqueness of political and cultural life that is inevitably associated with dictatorship and censorship. But it seems clear that some basic premises of US policy towards the region have been rendered invalid.

Most obviously, the Mubarak regime is finished in its role as the key US ally in the Arab world. If the regime survives at all, it will be through brutal repression which makes it clear once and for all that the dictatorship is held in place solely by military force. That in turn will make the provision of substantial economic or military aid politically untenable (the Republicans were already keen to cut aid to Egypt). But without continuing aid, there is little reason for any Egyptian government to support US foreign policy in the region.

The bigger casualty is the ‘Arab exception’: the idea that the concept of democracy is not really applicable in Arab countries and that foreign policy therefore amounts to a choice of which dictator to support. [1]

The autonomous emergence of democratic governments in Tunisia and Egypt would fatally undermine this exception, and leave the remaining dictatorships and monarchies in the region as anomalies, for which the question about the end of the regime would be “when?” rather than “if?”. A traditional foreign policy based on the presumed continuance of the status quo would become highly problematic, with high potential costs when the crash came[2]

More generally, the whole approach of US foreign policy towards the “Middle East” rests on assumptions that will be hard to sustain when the existing dictatorships are gone. Most fundamentally, how can the idea that the US has “strategic interests” in the region be justified? In some sense, this idea rests on the assumption that the existing governments are less than legitimate, and can be dealt with in terms of traditional Great Power politics, with spheres of influence, secret deals and so on. Even weak democratic states display much more effective resistance to external interference in their domestic affairs than do typical autocratic regimes.

The point applies most obviously in relation to oil. The idea that the US can legitimately use its military power to ensure continued access to oil resources rests, in large measure, on the (not entirely unfounded) assumption that those controlling the resources are a bunch of sheikhs and military adventurers who happened to be in the right place, with guns, at the right time. Without the Arab exception, the idea of oil as a special case, not subject to the ordinary assumption that resources are the property of the people in whose country they are found, will also be hard to sustain.

Finally, of course, there is the Israel-Palestine dispute. The current crisis may well have a direct impact here. But the indirect impact of the emergence of democratic governments in the Arab world (if this happens) will be even greater. Without the special status that comes from being the only real democracy in a region full of autocracies, the idea that Israel can continue indefinitely over subject peoples and expropriate their land will be even harder to sustain, as will any attempt by the US to back that claim. On the other hand, you don’t have to believe strong versions of democratic peace to conclude that the long-term prospects for a just and sustainable peace would be enhanced by the emergence of democracy. Whether this is right or wrong, the end of the Arab exception would surely undermine the idea that the US has some special role to play in all this.

Finally, the EU is much nearer to the action than is the US, and I think it’s clear that all kinds of debates within the EU (over migration, the admission of Turkey, further integration with the Mediterranean and so on) have been colored by the Arab exception in one way or another.

Those are some strong claims, and not fully worked out, so feel free to set me straight.

fn1. There was a shadow debate on this topic under the Bush Administration, which issued a lot of pro-democracy rhetoric as part of its case for . In practice, however, the Bushies continued to rely on friendly dictatorships in the Arab world (and beyond, in Pakistan and the former Soviet Union) as leading allies in the Global War on Terror. For these allies, token gestures towards democracy were encouraged, provided there was no possibility that they would actually give rise to governments responsive to popular opinion. The reasoning behind the Iraq war embodied yet another version of the exception, namely the idea that democracy would never arise from the ‘Arab street’. Instead, democracy had to be exported by armed US missionaries, with the happy side-effect of ensuring that the grateful beneficiaries would elect a pro-US government.

fn2. Iran being the paradigm case. That said, Iran is something of an outlier. In many places where US-backed dictators have been overthrown, the subsequent level of anti-American sentiment has been surprisingly modest.Looking at the downfall of the dictatorship in Tunisia, and the exploding protests against the Mubarak regime in Egypt, it’s obviously hard for Western/Northern commentators to say much about what is happening now and will happen. In part that reflects the cultural and political distances involved, and in part the opaqueness of political and cultural life that is inevitably associated with dictatorship and censorship. But it seems clear that some basic premises of US policy towards the region have been rendered invalid.

The end of the Arab exception?
Sat, 29 Jan 2011 07:13:34 GMT

Boehner backs off Social Security cuts

From Ezra Klein

The big concern that progressives had going into the State of the Union address was that President Obama would propose cuts to Social Security. That didn’t happen. And now, a few days after the State of the Union, John Boehner is backing off the cuts he’d previously proposed to Social Security.

Before the election, Boehner had said we should raise the retirement age to 70; he now says that proposing cuts was putting the cart before the horse. "I made a mistake when I did that because I think having the conversation about how big the problem is is the first step," Boehner told CNN’s Kathleen Parker. "And once the American people understand how big the problem is, then you can begin to outline an array of possible solutions." I take this as another example of the GOP’s flight from specificity.

Boehner backs off Social Security cuts
Ezra Klein
Thu, 27 Jan 2011 17:19:07 GMT


This doesn’t auger well for serious addressing of our fiscal situation.  I’m disappointed in Obama.  As a liberal, if he chose he has more potential to seriously address this than a right wingers.  It’s just like how Nixon could go to china.



via Audiophiles.