25 April, 2011

Reconceptualizing security

From the NATO Parliamentary Assembly--General Hans Klauman, former chairman of the North Atlantic military council, had some interesting comments:
“Globally, the struggle for water will be the primary source of conflict in the future, since at present 40% of mankind gets water from extraterritorial sources” said General Naumann, speaking to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in Edinburgh.  He also issued a warning on the impact of demographic shifts on geopolitical power structures.  The shrinking, aging European population will put “tremendous pressure” on their societies, compounded by migration trends.  These trends are in turn likely to intensify, partly as a result of the effects of climate change on poorer countries.  General Naumann also predicted a decline of the Russian population to “perhaps less than 100 million”, and pointed out the strategic significance of the four million illegal Chinese immigrants living and working in the resource rich parts of Siberia.

“The twenty-first century will be an unsettled century” said the general, whose presentation went on to discuss cyberwar and other emerging threats.  He supported the role of NATO on the world security stage, but said that the alliance “must be refashioned in accordance with a duly expanded concept of security”, to incorporate “all the instruments of crisis management, including, above all, non-military components, and which seeks cooperation with other organisations.”
I think he needs to distinguish between levels of causation when talking about resource wars.  As for the expansion of the concept of security, he's right that it needs to be expanded, so long as we don't forget the difference between intended and unintended threats.

13 April, 2011

Bretton Woods 2.0

Dangerous television

Chinese authorities are banning an increasingly popular genre of TV.  It's time-travel drama, where th protagonist goes back in time, suffers culture shock, but eventually prevails and finds love.  So what's the problem?

The New Yorker's Richard Brody suggests that what's making censors uncomfortable, is less what these dramas say about China's history, than what they imply about its present:

What the Chinese time-travel plots, as described above, have in common is the notion of escape: leaving contemporary, Communist-dominated China for the China of another era, one where, despite mores that are, in some ways, odd and outdated, love and happiness can be found. Time travel serves here as a dream of freedom from present-day strictures—or simply as a cry for freedom, from precisely this kind of idiotic and despotic regulation.


I'm not pissed off at all

In fact, I think it is some of the most insightful writing about higher education I've read in years.

Fair warning: This article will piss off a lot of you.
I can say that with confidence because it’s about Peter Thiel. And Thiel – the PayPal co-founder, hedge fund manager and venture capitalist – not only has a special talent for making money, he has a special talent for making people furious.
Some people are contrarian for the sake of getting headlines or outsmarting the markets. For Thiel, it’s simply how he views the world. Of course a side benefit for the natural contrarian is it frequently leads to things like headlines and money.
Consider the 2000 Nasdaq crash. Thiel was one of the few who saw in coming. There’s a famous story about PayPal’s March 2000 venture capital round. The offer was “only” at a $500 million-or-so valuation. Nearly everyone on the board and the management team balked, except Thiel who calmly told the room that this was a bubble at its peak, and the company needed to take every dime it could right now. That’s how close PayPal came to being dot com roadkill a la WebVan or Pets.com.
And after the crash, Thiel insisted there hadn’t really been a crash: He argued the equity bubble had simply shifted onto the housing market. Thiel was so convinced of this thesis that until recently, he refused to buy property, despite his soaring personal net worth. And, again, he was right.
So Friday, as I sat with Thiel in his San Francisco home that he finally owns, I was curious what he thinks of the current Web frenzy. Not surprisingly, another Internet bubble seemed the farthest thing from his mind. But, he argued, America is under the spell of a bubble of a very different kind. Is it an emerging markets bubble? You could argue that, Thiel says, but he also notes that with half of the world’s population surging to modernity, it’s hard to argue the emerging world is overvalued.
Instead, for Thiel, the bubble that has taken the place of housing is the higher education bubble. “A true bubble is when something is overvalued and intensely believed,” he says. “Education may be the only thing people still believe in in the United States. To question education is really dangerous. It is the absolute taboo. It’s like telling the world there’s no Santa Claus.”
Like the housing bubble, the education bubble is about security and insurance against the future. Both whisper a seductive promise into the ears of worried Americans: Do this and you will be safe. The excesses of both were always excused by a core national belief that no matter what happens in the world, these were the best investments you could make. Housing prices would always go up, and you will always make more money if you are college educated.
Like any good bubble, this belief– while rooted in truth– gets pushed to unhealthy levels. Thiel talks about consumption masquerading as investment during the housing bubble, as people would take out speculative interest-only loans to get a bigger house with a pool and tell themselves they were being frugal and saving for retirement. Similarly, the idea that attending Harvard is all about learning? Yeah. No one pays a quarter of a million dollars just to read Chaucer. The implicit promise is that you work hard to get there, and then you are set for life.  It can lead to an unhealthy sense of entitlement. “It’s what you’ve been told all your life, and it’s how schools rationalize a quarter of a million dollars in debt,” Thiel says.
Thiel isn’t totally alone in the first part of his education bubble assertion. It used to be a given that a college education was always worth the investment– even if you had to take out student loans to get one. But over the last year, as unemployment hovers around double digits, the cost of universities soars and kids graduate and move back home with their parents, the once-heretical question of whether education is worth the exorbitant price has started to be re-examined even by the most hard-core members of American intelligensia.
Making matters worse was a 2005 President George W. Bush decree that student loan debt is the one thing you can’t wriggle away from by declaring personal bankruptcy, says Thiel. “It’s actually worse than a bad mortgage,” he says. “You have to get rid of the future you wanted to pay off all the debt from the fancy school that was supposed to give you that future.”
But Thiel’s issues with education run even deeper. He thinks it’s fundamentally wrong for a society to pin people’s best hope for a better life on  something that is by definition exclusionary. “If Harvard were really the best education, if it makes that much of a difference, why not franchise it so more people can attend? Why not create 100 Harvard affiliates?” he says. “It’s something about the scarcity and the status. In education your value depends on other people failing. Whenever Darwinism is invoked it’s usually a justification for doing something mean. It’s a way to ignore that people are falling through the cracks, because you pretend that if they could just go to Harvard, they’d be fine. Maybe that’s not true.”

Then again, I've always focued on places that put learning above status-signals.

06 April, 2011

Watch Gaza

NightWatch usually gets mthe indicators right, and provides this warning on Gaza:

Israel-Palestine: Israel's Minister of Public Security Yitzhak Aharonovitch said Israel and Gaza are on the verge of a conflict akin to Operation Cast Lead -- the December 2008 Israeli punitive campaign in the Gaza Strip, according to an Israeli radio report. Aharonovitch warned residents of southern Israel to expect more rocket attacks from Gaza.


Comment: Aharonovitch's statement is the second in a week that warns Israelis to expect a large military operation in the Gaza Strip. The timing remains undisclosed, but the developing warning pattern suggests soon. At least one or two more warnings that contain more details should follow in shorter intervals, if an operation is planned. The Israeli civilians in southern Israel require advance notice to make civil defense preparations and the government always provides it, as it is doing now.

The "fun" about the middle east these days is everything happening at once.