Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder, International Leaders or Buffoons?

Grenoble, France: Two days ago the French held a referendum on the European constitution, and they rejected it 55% to 45%. The French vote has sent the Western European political class into a tizzy. French president Jacque Chirac sacked his prime minister, and in Germany, it will probably accelerate the downfall of Jacques Chirac’s most slavish follower, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

The ratification process for the European Constitution doomed it from the start. For the Constitution to come into effect, all 25 members of the European Union must approve it, and the probability that 25 countries will agree on anything is close to zero. By contrast, changes to the U.S. Constitution require ratification by three-fourths of the states, still a high standard, but one that it is possible to achieve.

French law does not require a referendum to ratify an international agreement. French referendums are called by the president as a political maneuver and are non-binding. A French president calls a referendum only when he is certain that the electorate will approve his point of view and thereby demonstrate his popularity. Jacques Chirac is the second president since the Second World War to lose a referendum. The first was Charles de Gaulle. The fact that Chirac thought that he could win a referendum shows how out of touch he is with the French people, who generally regard him as a buffoon.

If the rejection of the Constitution is an indirect slap in the face for President Jacques Chirac, it is also a slap in the face for Chirac’s most ardent supporter, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who has taken advantage of Chirac’s popularity among the Germans to enhance his own image. Each time Chirac made a statement against the United States in the lead-up to the Iraq war, Schroeder was there to support him. Admiration for Chirac’s defiance of the United States was high in Germany, a country that admires strong, insolent leaders, and Schroeder basked in Chirac’s reflected glory. Since Hitler, it is considered bad form to be a patriotic German, so Germans have redirected their nationalistic impulses to the European Union and to its would-be leader, Jacques Chirac. By now, however, it should be plain to all but the most ardent Euro-nationalists that Schroeder and many of his countrymen have been licking the feet of an emperor who had no clothes.

In France, the president is a strong figure who wields great power. The French Prime Minister is a secondary figure who serves at the president’s pleasure and who the president can send packing at any time. Jacques Chirac has attempted to make Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin the scapegoat for the defeat and has sacked him. He has been replaced by Dominique de Villepin, a supercilious boot-licker who is has never held elected office. Villepin’s haughtiness neither endears him to the French population nor to their elected leaders nor to diplomats from other countries who have had to endure his arrogance. To many French people, Chirac’s choice of Villepin is proof that Chirac is “losing it.” Most French feel that it is Chirac who should resign.

It will be interesting to follow the developments in France and in the European Union during the next few weeks. The European Union intends to continue the ratification process, even though the Constitution is dead. But, useless activity is what Europeans have come to expect from their international government. It keeps the bureaucrats employed.

I and others would be interesting in knowing your point of view. Please click on the word "COMMENTS" below to add your thoughts.

Friday, May 27, 2005

The U.S. Needs More Legal Immigration, Not Less

Last year, 300 people are known to have died while illegally crossing from Mexico into the United States. Two hundred of those deaths occurred in the Arizona desert, and it is likely that many more died and were never found. The estimates of the number of people living illegally in the United States are between 10 and 20 million, and about a million additional illegal immigrants are believed to arrive each year. More than half of them are believed to enter by crossing the border between Arizona and the Mexican state of Sonora.

Almost all of the illegal entrants are attracted by jobs. A large percentage of the jobs that the U.S. economy creates each year are unskilled and were once filled by high school dropouts. Despite worries about low educational standards in the United States, the number of people born in the United States who finish high school is now over 90 percent, and one-third of the adult population as at least some advanced education. There are no longer enough native-born Americans who are suited to fill the large number of unskilled jobs that the U.S. economy creates, so those workers must be found abroad.

As we should have learned from the history of prohibition in the United States, wherever there is a pressing demand for a product or a service, an organization will spring up to fill it. That has been the case with alcohol, drugs, and entry-level workers. Many U.S. industries such as food processing, agriculture, fast-food restaurants, hotels, and construction rely on inexpensive, low-skilled labor, and because the legal U.S. economy is unable to meet that demand, an illegal industry has evolved to fill it.

The illegal smuggling of human beings into the United States, mainly from Mexico, has given rise to vicious criminal gangs, just as prohibition and anti-drug laws have done. Rival gangs of smugglers of human beings sometimes conduct gun battles in the cities and on the highways of Arizona. Those victims of the smugglers who are unable to pay for their passage are held prisoner until their families come up with the money, or failing this, they may be executed with a shot to the head. The human suffering that is involved in meeting an economic demand in the United States is both unimaginable and immoral.

Illegal immigrant smuggling is also a huge security flaw. Any terrorist who wants to enter the U.S. without leaving a trace can do so by paying a human trafficker a few thousand dollars. Probably some already have. No matter how many Border Patrol agents are deployed along the U.S.-Mexican border, there will never be enough of them to seal the border and prevent the entry of terrorists as long as U.S. immigration law encourages human trafficking.

Current U.S. immigration law arbitrarily fixes the number of immigrants who are admitted to the United States each year with no regard to the number of immigrants that the country requires. A rational policy would attempt to fill by legal means the economic requirements for foreign workers, by admitting temporary workers, immigrants, or both. A bill before Congress that is sponsored by Massachusetts senator Edward Kennedy and Arizona senator John McCain would attempt to do just that. It would establish a program to allow temporary guest workers sponsored by an employer to enter the country legally and would establish a process for some of those foreign workers to become residents and begin the path toward citizenship.

Such a change in immigration law would have benefits for the U.S. economy, for border security, would result in a reduction of violent criminal activity in the Border States, particularly in Arizona. It would allow a large part of the law-enforcement resources currently deployed along the border to be redirected towards fighting the genuine bad guys instead being used to hunt down people whose worst crime is that they are looking for a job.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Is China the World’s Next Economic Superpower?

Much has been written in recent years about China’s remarkable economic growth, and many are forecasting that it will be the next economic superpower. But, will it be? A few decades ago, many claimed that Japan would soon have the world’s most powerful economy, but Japan’s growth stalled, and the country went into a recession from which it has still not recovered. Will the same thing happen to China?

If China does not change its ways, the answer is yes. China’s economic policies have helped it to grow at a remarkable pace—9.5 percent last year—but that growth rate cannot be sustained. China’s growth depends mainly on exports, and as Japan and Germany can testify, export-driven economies are vulnerable. China’s expanding exports depend on tremendous consumption of natural resources, a total disregard for the environment, and an undervalued currency. Let’s take those points one at a time.

According to an interview with Pan Yue, Deputy Minister of China’s State Environmental Protection Administration published in the German newsweekly Der Spiegel, in order to produce $10,000 worth of goods, China requires seven times as many raw materials as Japan, six times as many as the United States, and three times as many as India. China’s enormous hunger for raw materials has pushed prices sky high, as anyone who drives into a gasoline station for a fill-up can testify. The supply of raw materials cannot grow quickly enough to meet China’s needs if it continues its present manufacturing practices and rate of growth. One or the other will have to change.

In the same interview, Pan Yue said that acid rain now falls on one third of China’s land mass, that half of the water in the country’s seven largest rivers is completely unusable, that one fourth of Chinese citizens have no access to clean drinking water, and that one third of city dwellers breath filthy air, with the result that 70 to 80 percent of cancer fatalities in Beijing are attributed to environmental factors. In other words, the current economic boom is based in part on a disregard for the health of the Chinese people and for the future of the country. If that is not changed, China is headed for environmental collapse.

China’s currency problems have been much in the news lately due to pressure that President Bush has put on China to reform. The Chinese yuan has been valued at 8.28 to the U.S. dollar since 1995. It should be worth much more. China keeps the value of its currency artificially low by buying huge quantities of U.S. currency and government debt. Its under-priced currency helps China manufacture goods more cheaply than other countries can, and as a result, it exports far more than it imports. China had a balance of payments surplus of 4.2 percent of its gross domestic product in 2004, and the number for 2005 is sure to be much higher. China’s reaction to President Bush’s demands that it let the value of its currency rise has not been promising. Prime Minister Wen Jiabao called the currency question an issue of “China’s own sovereignty.” Such failure to address this problem does not bode well for China’s future.

China is in effect subsidizing the standard of living of people in other countries, especially in the United States. It cannot continue to accumulate every larger amounts currency and foreign debt. At some point, China will revalue its currency or market forces will do it. When that happens, China’s its dollar holdings lose value, but the longer China delays in taking this necessary step, the worse that loss will be.

Whether China makes a successful transition to sustainable but slower economic growth is largely up to China’s government. A gradual change in policy in the near future could give China the opportunity to switch its production to industries that are less dependent on the consumption of natural resources, begin to clean up its environmental mess, bring its imports more nearly into balance with its exports, and to raise the value of its currency in a controlled way without triggering panic. Failure to adopt such measures could cause China’s economy to collapse.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

A Final Word on Newsweek

Since I wrote the following Blog entry, Newsweek has published an article explaining how it got its details wrong about the alleged desecration of the Koran by U.S. interrogators. However, nowhere in the article does it acknowledge that it failed to follow journalistic practices by publishing accusations supplied by a single anonymous source -- accusations that it was unable to verify. – J.Q.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Newsweek Yellow Journalism at its Best

On May 9, Newsweek magazine published an article in which it stated that American interrogators at the Guantánamo Bay military base in Cuba had desecrated the Koran, the Muslim holy book, by placing copies of it on toilet seats. The article farther stated that one copy was flushed down the toilet. Newsweek wrote that it had received the information from “sources,” implying that several people testified to its veracity. The story triggered riots in several Muslim countries including Afghanistan and Pakistan. The riots are reported to have killed 17 people.

After the Pentagon said that it could find no evidence to support the claims, Newsweek retracted the story and now admits it was not based on multiple sources, but only on one unnamed source who did not witness the alleged desecration but who had supposedly read about it in government documents. Now says Newsweek even that source is not sure what he read about the alleged desecration.

Basing an accusation of the desecration of the Koran on what one source claims to have remembered without verifying it is sloppy journalism to say the least. In this case, it is highly irresponsible given the tensions between the Muslim world and the West and the cost in human life. However, even the best news publications can have lapses in judgment. Newsweek could perhaps be forgiven if the magazine’s management had made a sincere apology and promised to adhere to journalistic norms from now on. But, it has not done that. Even while retracting the story, Newsweek has been busily evading its responsibility. Newsweek editor Mark Whitaker said that the magazine “behaved professionally” in producing the story and that before publication it had showed the story to a Pentagon official who did not object to the allegation about the desecration of the Koran.

Mr. Whitaker, basing an inflammatory accusation on information that a single source may have read in a report is not professional behavior! Nor is it sufficient to show the story to a Pentagon official who may not have the information at hand to dispute it. Journalism requires that facts be checked. Statements that are made by a single person and cannot be verified are suspect and should not be reported. Additionally, there is a name for editors who make questionable statements appear reliable by falsely claiming that they are based on “sources.” Such people are called liars.

Much of the world believes that mainstream Western news media cannot be trusted. These people will suspect that Newsweek reported the truth originally and recanted under government pressure. Newsweek’s behavior will seem to them to confirm their belief that Western news organizations are mouthpieces for Western governments. Newsweek has given journalism a bad name. The damage that Newsweek has done cannot be repaired. However, to avoid such unprofessional conduct in the future, it is time for Newsweek to make an honest apology and to take steps toward honest reporting.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Is Bush an Idiot?

I was invited to attend a class at the University of Grenoble here in France a few weeks ago to hear a fellow American speak to the on the subject of the religious right in the United States. Her audience was a group of French university students who were taking advanced English. The speaker was an ex-Mormon missionary who had became disillusioned with Mormonism and conservative religious thought in general. She now lives and works in France. In her presentation, she painted a large segment of the population of the United States as foaming-at-the-mouth right-wingers who are far out of touch with reasonable people in the rest of the world.

I object to this stereotyping. I admit that the religious right in the U.S. has a disproportionate influence on the current administration, and I deplore that fact. However, the American religious right probably makes up between 10 and 15 percent of the population. I considered it unfair to paint a large segment of U.S. with the same rightwing brush.

Her strongest barbs were reserved for George Bush, whom she called a man “with no education” who “lied to the American people.” She said she recognized in his speech pattern the signs of brain damage done by his history of alcohol abuse.

I have no love for George Bush. I consider him to be a bad president who has gotten the U.S. into great economic difficulty. I believe he has engineered a transfer of wealth from the poor and middle class to the most wealthy among us. It pains me to have to defend him, but I think that when criticizing someone we should stick to facts. The facts are not on the speaker’s side.

Let us begin with George Bush’s alleged lack of education. He graduated from Yale and later earned a master’s degree from Harvard Business School. If education is defined as schooling, George Bush has more of it than most people, including many of his critics.

On the subject of “lying to the American people,” I assume that refers to Bush’s statements before the Iraq war that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. When it turned out that those weapons did not exist, some people made the charge that Bush had lied to us. I believe that a liar is someone who makes a statement knowing that the statement is false. Making a false statement that one believes to be true is called a mistake.

Investigations have shown that, before the Iraq invasion, the CIA was convinced that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction. The CIA was in good company. The intelligence agencies of Great Britain, France, Germany, and Israel also believed that Iraq had those weapons. They were all wrong. They should be criticized for their ineptness, but there is a difference between being incompetent and being a liar. There is no evidence that Bush lied about his belief that Iraq was hiding some very dangerous weapons.

I find the charge that George Bush suffered brain damage as a consequence of his drinking to be the most outrageous part of the speaker’s presentation. A reputable doctor would hesitate to diagnose a person whom he had not examined. Others, with no medical training, have no qualms about diagnosing the supposed mental ills of people whom they only know through news reports and televised speeches.

Is George Bush a bad president? Anyone who understands how to balance a checkbook must conclude that he is. However, let us criticize him for the defects that he has, which are many. There is no need to trump up false ones.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Going Somewhere? Well, Walk! It’s Mayday!

I had forgotten that today is May 1st when I left the apartment this morning to catch the bus downtown here in Grenoble, France, where I am almost at the end of my ten-month stay. Because it was Sunday morning, I knew there would be few buses running, so I settled down with a magazine on a bench at the bus stop to wait. Soon another man joined me. After 20 minutes, we began to wonder aloud what was keeping the bus, to compare watches, peer up the street, and mutter about the unreliability of public transportation. Then two women passed on the other side of the street and yelled across to us: “Il n’a pas de bus ! C’est le 1 mai !“ (There is no bus. It’s May 1st).

May 1st is Mayday, and it is also Labor Day in most countries of the world with the notable exceptions of the United States and Canada. Paradoxically, Labor Day is celebrated by not laboring, and in France that means that even bus and tram drivers have the day off. Here in Grenoble, there is no public transportation whatsoever—unless you are willing to pay for a taxi.

I do not own a car in France, and I am too cheap to pay a taxi driver for a Sunday morning jaunt downtown, so I walked. It is only a few miles, and I am always looking for an excuse to get some exercise. On the way, I saw a few other innocents waiting at bus and tram stops. Apparently, even among the French, not everyone had gotten the word.

Downtown I ran into the big Labor Day parade. It was not like a parade in the United States. There were no bands, no prancing girls in short skirts, and no floats. There was just a tightly packed mass of humanity filing through the streets, waving banners, and chanting in time to instructions bellowed from a megaphone. It was more of a march that a parade.

Oh, there was one vehicle in the crowd. A small pickup truck, dwarfed by the four stadium-sized speakers it carried, was blasting salsa music at a deafening volume. Why was someone playing salsa music in a march to celebrate the French worker? I have no idea.

Someone handed me a flyer that promoted Esperanto as the European Language. Although the word English appeared nowhere on the flyer, I could not help but feel that the flyer’s author was trying to combat the use of this insidious language. I briefly considered calling one of the numbers on the flyer to register for an Esperanto class. The flyer made it seem as if Esperanto was so easy to learn that I would be fluent within a few weeks. But then I changed my mind. With whom would I speak? No one I know understands Esperanto or cares to learn it. Everyone is busy learning English.

I walked back home where I am writing this blog. When I finish, I would like to go out again, but where would I go? With no public transportation and no car, my freedom of movement is limited to the places where my legs will carry me. I will be happy when Mayday is over.