Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Great Firewall Again

It seems journalists arriving in Beijing for the Olympics are frustrated to find many websites blocked by my favorite organization, the Chinese government. Welcome to daily life for Chinese citizens - where even taking pictures of earthquake damage can earn you a ticket to a re-education camp. So much for the much-vaunted post-quake Glasnost in the days after the quake; that genie got quickly put back in the bottle. With luck there will be more websites listing ways to get around the Firewall like this CNET entry.

McCain Visits San Francisco Again

McCain was here in San Francisco Monday night and he spoke firmly from the rational center, where he needs to be to win the election, doing what's right for the country. Even the SF Chronicle gives McCain points for his openness to discussion with Obama and so far Obama has been quiet, but I guess it's hard to be eloquent when someone is asking you substantive questions that don't have pre-scripted answers.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

WTO Collapse: Proof of a Multipolar World

Yesterday I mentioned that the WTO talks were on the ropes thanks to China and India, and today they're finished.

It's not new that agriculture is a major stumbling block - for example, wheat subsidy issues have been contentious between the US and EU (particularly France) and the US is infamous for corn and especially cotton subsidies. Coupled with the different cost of living in different markets, it often becomes difficult for farmers growing certain products to compete with foreign produce even domestically, let alone internationally. Case in point, the town of Gilroy, an hour south of Silicon Valley, has historically been the garlic growing center of the U.S. and they have a garlic festival every year. For the last few years most of the garlic has been brought in from (say it with me) China, because even after the transport costs, it's cheaper. Incidentally, I assume that the Swedish government must subsidize Ikea for them to be able to compete so effectively with furniture producers overseas. I think every new piece of furniture I've ever bought has been from them, and I have no complaints.

None of that is so shocking What's new here is that a) WTO talks actually break down over such issues and b) that China and India are partly responsible for the breakdown. Interestingly enough, the billionaire everyone loves to hate (George Soros) states explicitly not that he welcomes this new multipolarity, but rather that the loss of American dominance can only mean decreased geopolitical stability. The Brookings Institution has made the ominous argument that multipolarity should be welcomed by the US - so long as it can be structured within frameworks like, for example, the WTO.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Pro-Obama Coverage Finally Put Me Over the Edge

It's no surprise that the WTO talks are increasingly being pulled off the rails by China and India, who continue to grow as the voting publics of the West ignore them. Global economic growth is good for everybody - as long as it results in the growth of democracies. This is anything but assured. Ted Koppel makes this point abundantly clear in his series on China that democracy does not equal capitalism. And where is the attention of the candidates?

In John McCain's case, it's quite pointedly on China's human rights record. If you've read my other blog entries, you may have noticed I'm sometimes interested in Chinese and Tibetan affairs. I didn't know until today when I did a "McCain China" news search that on Friday he met with the Dalai Lama.

This is major news, yet it was largely overlooked by the national press. I try not to jump on media bandwagons, especially stories about stories as in this case, but I can't help myself here. Gerald Baker at the London Times wrote a little parody summarizing the media frenzy; I would think it was funnier if I weren't afraid some of Obama's people might miss that it's parody.

While Obama was busy looking good on camera overseas, McCain was drawing attention the growth of a superpower government that has showed little interest in the rights of its own people,
let alone those of its trading partners. Twenty years from now I hope we can look back knowing we made the right choice. IF IT'S GOOD FOR JOHN MCCAIN, IT'S GOOD FOR AMERICA, IT'S GOOD FOR THE CHINESE PEOPLE, AND BAD FOR THE CHINESE GOVERNMENT.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Maoists Are Crybabies

Aw. When it turns out they have to share power in a coalition government, they drop out (actually as I was putting up this blog entry some new stories appeared: now they want to stay in power for 2 years, but you bet there will be a fire in the Reichstag before the end of that).

These aren't people interested in democracy. But you don't have to take my word for it that these are people primarily interested in extending China's reach.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Michael Savage: Pro-Socialized Medicine

Please get Michael Savage off the airwaves. I think Obama is paying him to discredit conservatism (if not, he should be.)

If you haven't heard, Savage said some really asinine things about not only autism (that 99% of autistic kids aren't really sick but just misbehaving) but that drug companies have "created" the disease category to make themselves rich:

"'In 99 percent of the cases, it's a brat who hasn't been told to cut the act out.' Savage offered no apology in a message posted Monday on his Web site. He said greedy doctors and drug companies were creating a 'national panic' by overdiagnosing autism..."

No one should be surprised, of course. This guy has had trouble acting like a grown-up before (and this is what people in the political center today think of when they think about conservatives). Here he again shows not only a total lack of compassion, but a total lack of responsibility in spouting medical nonsense to the public - where does that 99% statistic come from, Mike? I bet a proctologist could answer that.

More frustrating is that Savage's comments show that he must not even understand how private medicine or indeed the free market works in the US. Drug industries can't create a need for treatment. When sick people, or in this case their parents, go to doctors, doctors and patients see the need for treatment and the drug industry fills that need.

I think what must happen is he sees his rating slip and then his producer gives him a cue card with some offensive inane slur on it to read during the show. Never mind that he's directly contradicting the conservative values that he's supposed to support, and clearly doesn't understand. If we have to rely on braying donkeys like Savage to keep public opinion in favor of a predominantly private American healthcare system, then get ready to sign up for socialized medicine at your local politburo. Michael Savage wins the flag-hugger award this month.

The GOP VP Rumor Mill

Bob Novak says he's miffed that the GOP was planning on using him as a rumor outlet for a possible McCain VP pick; I think the real reason he's annoyed is they ended up not going forward and he lost his scoop.

Ever since he got into the illegal business of outing CIA agents I haven't had a lot of respect for Bob Novak, so I'm not too worried about his sensitive feelings. But since this particular announcement was supposed to rain on Obama's parade so much, I wonder quite cynically (in terms of political strategy): does this mean we're looking at a black VP candidate in the McCain camp? I would quite enthusiastically support a McCain-Powell or McCain-Rice ticket. Again being strategically cynical, McCain-Rice would pull some women voters away from Obama.

Let's look at my little Google News metric. A couple times before (here and here and here) I've discussed McCain's VP strategy (as in, don't pick Jindal or we might as well stay in and have a beer on November 4); and I've tracked the hit rate for McCain [potential VP surname] to compare candidates at a given point in time - but I hadn't looked at trends.

Caveats: for all but Jindal and Pawlenty the hit rate on the middle date is inferred by assuming a linear trend between 3 June and 22 July. Of course, these folks can be in the news for reasons other than being mentioned as VP (and Powell has come up more than once as an Obama VP).

That said, I still think it's very interesting that Rice has bay far the steepest upward line on this graph, particularly in light of that supposed VP rumor.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The American Economy and American Technical Education

Quiz time: in the future, do you think economic growth and competitiveness will depend MORE on scientists and engineers, or less? Venture capitalist Ben Rosen has a great but sobering blog entry about the number of technical PhDs being produced in the U.S. and (where else) China. (Credit to Rosen for the figure below.) The U.S. is getting better at producing massage therapists and MBAs, but considerably worse at minting scientists and engineers, on whose innovations economic growth depends (as a VC guy Rosen might know something about this, and you can see why he's concerned):

And yet we haven't heard a serious debate between candidates – or really any earnest discussion – on how to restore our flagging support for talent production in the technical sector. Come on, John, you're about to be the new head of the party of business and international strength. If you want to show how soft a soft-headed liberal lawyer is, get him in a debate about science and engineering in the modern economy.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Jefferson, the Founding Fathers, and Modern American Politics

A reader brought to my attention this interesting post, summarized in the title above. There's also (not surprisingly) a lengthy discussion following it. I guarantee you won't agree with everything in it, and I guarantee I wouldn't agree with all your opinions - but I would defend to the death your right to say it. Freedom of expression is one of the basic freedoms that big government likes to take away first.

Monday, July 14, 2008

A Microcosm: The Loss of Critical Thought in Politics

Whales are maybe not the first thing on most people's minds this election cycle (even Democrats). But one of the problems that faces Americans is the lack of critical thinking that people use to connect their values to the real world, and this debate is just one small example, so forgive my digression from McCain and China.

In a nutshell: the Makah Indian tribe of Washington State hunts whales, and they've been doing it for a long time. Fine - except that they need paperwork to do it. The reason the rest of us can't go whale-hunting is that Richard Nixon signed into law the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act, which among other things bans whaling. (Most forget that Nixon also established the EPA.)

Now, if you're a conservative of course, you have a clear idea what your values are, and you hold your values because of the impact they have on the cold hard pounds-and-inches-and-dollars reality of the material world. "Because we always did it this way" isn't a good argument, and neither is "don't do it because it's mean"; people need to eat. A clearer way to think about it is to ask the questions: do we want whales around for our grandkids to see? At the same time, do we want to stop hunters from making a living that way? The reality is that if every industrialized country puts a fleet of high tech whaling vessels back on the high seas, your grandkids won't see the whales. In fact the whales are having enough trouble surviving today with just Japan to contend with. But if we're talking about traditional Makah hunting, the Makah are going to be able to make a living and they're not going to make a dent in the global whale population. Anticipating this problem, Congress and Nixon included a provision in the Protection Act to allow traditional subsistence activities. The Makah are allowed to do it, but they need a permit, and they're not doing themselves any favors by acting illegally while the case drags on.

See? This legislation didn't come out of gut reactions against poofy liberals trying to save whales, or hearts bleeding about the mean conservatives (or Makahs) trying to kill them. By thinking clearly about what your values are, and what impact your choices will have on the world, you can usually arrive at a solution that works for most of us. But now the debate is open again, and it's all about mean people (Makah or not) and cuddly whales and "We've always done it this way so ---- you."

In closing, if it seems like I've had this specific debate before, maybe it's because someone at my house is Japanese and although she managed to talk me into trying whale sushi on one occasion, it doesn't mean I'm pro-Japan-whaling.
(Yes, it was hypocritical, but it was once. I tried it once. Then that's it forever. Imagine really fatty beef, but raw. No, you're not missing much.)

*As an aside: interestingly enough, in 1999, a few park rangers in Denali National Park up in Alaska confided in me that the moose population was dropping because of overhunting. But not by humans. They had observed that grizzlies had developed a new technique to kill moose calves by separating them from their mothers, and the new method had apparently been spreading among the bears (yes, they're really that smart, and they can learn how to open screw-top containers too). And of course, the moose population dropped. Nature-lovers might not like the idea of fuzzy critters exterminating each other without our help, but until not long ago, every animal that went extinct did it without us around.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Thank you California Firefighters

I just drove up to Nevada City to go swimming in the Yuba River, and it was smoky the whole way. It was so bad I kept expecting to see flames licking over the side of the canyon. On the 4th I saw some guys camped in Yosemite, ready to go for when a blaze catches up there (not if). We can't thank these guys and gals enough for keeping the state of California from burning down, and we're just at the beginning of the fire season.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Freedom of Speech Under Attack by Religious Radicals

Never mind that the story takes place in Canada, because here in the States, we're next. Long story short: Maclean's magazine (a Canadian news weekly) ran columns for around two years critical of the political ambitions of modern Islam. As if to confirm that, the Canadian Islamic Congress filed complaints with their national Human Rights Commission and two provincial-level commissions. Canadians have a justified reputation of being reasonable and willing to listen to the other guy, but in this case it's not serving them well. Clearly, any religion that's accustomed to being part of the State, and intends to repeat that in the West, is unable to understand and has no interest in tolerating freedom of speech. (Original story here.)

Fortunately the national-level commission has seen this invasion of rights for what it is and thrown it out, but the complaint in British Columbia still stands. Will you be ready to defend Americans' when religious extremists try to take it away here? Regardless of what religion it happens to be?

People Aren't Content With a Little Bit of Openness

As the recent riot in China shows. People are upset about a cover-up in the murder of a young girl, but they were already upset about being shoved around by China's ham-fisted top-down development projects. The Chinese government is realizing that you can't expect people with a taste of economic success and increased access to information to put up with this treatment. IF IT'S BAD FOR THE CHINESE GOVERNMENT, IT'S GOOD FOR EVERYONE ELSE.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Should US Interrogators Imitate Chinese Interrogators?

This news item is made for my blog. Still think the USA should be able to torture whoever it wants? What if you were to find out that the interrogators at Guantanamo Bay are taught to imitate Chinese torture techniques? Specifically, the ones the Chinese government used during the Korean War on American soldiers. Apparently my earlier Manchurian Candidate reference was not in vain.

Yes, there are real bad guys, as many people would rather not believe; and yes, you do what you have to in order to protect people. But we can't institutionalize torture. That's why we're the good guys. That's why we're the civilized ones. And that's why already in 2005 John McCain introduced an amendment to the 2005 military budget bill to ban torture, which passed 91-9.

A choice between keeping alive America's moral mandate versus imitating Chinese torture practices shouldn't be so difficult.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Obama is Playing Clinton's Game

And that game is: incoporate your opponent's positions when they suit you, and in so doing, irritate the hell out of said opponents (and what can they say? "That's the right thing to do but only I'm allowed to support it"?) and steal their supporters to boot. Nothing wrong with it; Obama is a shrewd strategist. Governor Schwarzenegger does it too. In this case, Obama has used the Clinton strategy by stating that he supports faith-based initiatives, and in so doing exploits McCain's perceived weakness with the Religious Right. Obama thinks that as soon as people hear that word "faith", they'll be tricked.

The problem with this particular move, if Obama gets elected and actually follows through on it in office, is that now both parties have endorsed a position that badly damages a Constitutional pillar, and we - Americans - have nowhere to run.

Whether or not you're a Christian American, you should still see a problem with the government intruding into your faith. The erosion of the barrier between church and state is a frightening prospect for the religious and nonreligious alike, which is exactly why Thomas Jefferson made it such a firm part of his ideals from the beginning:

Once the government controls your religious group's budget, they control you; and don't think that the church with the closest relationship to the government isn't going to do better than yours. (After the David Koresh incident I saw a bumper sticker in Texas: "Is your church ATF-approved?") And even if that doesn't give you pause about faith-based initiatives, you can't guarantee that all your tax money will be going to Christian charities. Do you like the idea of an orphanage getting Federal funds to teach Koran classes? How about paying for a Scientology center to do park maintenance? Now you're getting it. You can't exclude or allow particular religions, unless of course you have an official state religion, like Iran.

No to Obama, and no to faith-based initiatives from anybody!

El Salvador and Guatemala Redux

I went to Guatemala because a friend of mine was getting married there, and I went to El Salvador because a) it's right next door and if I'm in Central America for 2 weeks I want points for more than one country, b) it's a Central America airport hub and c) no one ever goes there for tourism. I already had assumed c), and indeed everyone I met kept asking me what I was doing there if I wasn't there on business. In fact, one taxi driver flatly refused to believe me.

El Salvador has deserted white sand beaches, a famous black sand surf beach, gorgeous coastal mountains and ancient ruins buried by volcanic ash like Pompeii. But this is a political blog, not a travel blog. If you've been to some of the countries in Latin America, you're familiar with the drawbacks: people aggressively trying to sell you crappy trinkets. Trash on the beaches. And guns everywhere. Private security guys with rifles on every corner, at banks, at hair salons, at McDonalds (really). Guys sitting on their porches with shotguns, and the occasional machine gun (yes, really). Guys in various types of uniforms with uzis walking around casually (also really - I arrived at my hotel in San Salvador 7:30am, and by 9:30 I'd seen my first uzi). While I support the right to keep and bear arms, it's still worth pointing out that despite the show of force, there's still crime in these places, in fact more than here. On one level you think no one would dare rob me in front of that guy; on another you think, holy hell, is civil order really that tenous that the uzi display is required? And why do I think that guy guarding his porch won't rob me too? It really is better to just have a functioning public security force that protects everyone, as I discussed before.

Both El Salvador and Guatemala had devastating Civil Wars (from 1979-1991 and 1960-1996, respectively); with that in mind, things didn't look so bad. San Salvador has several gigantic new malls and factories springing up along country roads thanks to CAFTA, and Guatemala has about every retail chain known to man in it (along with its own fast food chain that now has stores in the U.S. and China). Despite the recovery, both countries have problems with income disparities and corruption, especially Guatemala. In fact when I told people in El Salvador I was heading to Guatemala they warned me about the police (I was already a little nervous in Salvador - how do you think that made me feel?) To be fair, just Saturday I got pulled over at a highway checkpoint by Guatemala's Finest as I was driving back from the beach, and all they did was check my passport, US driver's license, and the rental car registration, and waved me on. Thirty seconds. So my one experience with the cops was a fair and efficient one. Just to be safe, I exaggerated my accent in Spanish so they would think that any attempt to bother me wouldn't be worth the hassle of making me understand what they wanted.

In any case, I tried to ask as many people as possible in both countries if they thought things were improving or getting worse. I tried to hit every slice of the pie - wealthy people, Indians in the country, taxi drivers, expats residing there, you name it. In both places, nearly 100% of the people I talked to thought things had in general been improving over the previous decade, with the possible exception that crime has gotten a little worse in Guatemala City over the past year or two.

And here's the take-home point. As Americans, we've had drilled into our heads that our foreign policy in the 20th century led us to shamelessly interfere with our Latin American neighbors, even to the point of supporting dictators because they mouthed anti-communist platitudes. While this was sometimes true, there were other foreign powers doing the same - specifically, the USSR, through Cuba. As I often remind people: there are real bad guys in the world with real designs against democracy, and dialogue alone doesn't always protect our ideals.

Despicable atrocities were committed on both sides in both civil wars. I met someone whose father was abducted and murdered by the Guatemalan military, although I suspect there are many more people thus affected that for obvious reasons don't like to talk about it; in fact it amazed me how little people talked about the wars, and I didn't feel like forcing the subject. One notable exception is that you can go on walking tours of the trails on the volcano overlooking San Salvador, which were used by guerillas during the war, and your guide will be someone who fought in the war. And you thought U.S. Civil War re-enactments were a little strange?

Particularly in Guatemala, the government's forces, fighting communist insurgents, committed the most brutal acts during the period 1977-1981 - during the Carter administration, when the US was providing no military aid, and ironically could not therefore apply much pressure on the Guatemalan government. Quite apart from the idea that the U.S. only funneled guns into Central America and then left the countries to their own devices, a positive role for the US in restoring stability in Latin America was recognized already in the mid 1990s. The Economist charged at one point that the U.S. was arrogant to assume it could build a democracy in Iraq when it couldn't encourage it even in its backyard of Latin America. I now disagree strongly. I just visited two Latin American countries that were both dictatorships in a civil war 20 years ago, and the US has had some influence in making both places democratic and more prosperous, not so much through military support, but through trade agreements and subsidies designed to encourage the development of transparent democracy and markets. Bush Sr. deserves the most credit. As an example, since 2002 Guatemala's per capita income has been growing at just under 6% annually - 2002 number here, 2008 number here.

I remind free market fundamentalists that public services and lands are good things. Neither has a strong presence in either country. And somehow, even El Salvador (with a remarkably low tax rate) has not turned into a Randian, meritocratic paradise of venture capital and innovation. Parks have to be constantly patrolled to keep locals from poaching game and timber (you must go into many with a guide). For fear of robbery, you can't go out for a walk at night; you can't go for a run in the hills around the cities. Most people don't hold their elected officials accountable, and anybody with money has glass-lined walls around their compound, and not without reason - one family told me about a multiple home-invasion where gunmen held them hostage while they ransacked their house. The problem with cleaning up crime is that there's not much money for police, people have poor expectations of the performance of public services, and corruption is still endemic. Add to that the still very obvious relation between skin color and income: the more Indian you are, the poorer you are. Guatemalans are sometimes uncomfortable talking about this to Americans just like we're sometimes uncomfortable talking to Europeans about white and black issues. It's getting better, but it doesn't get fixed overnight.

Having said all that, I had a great time, particularly at Lake Atitlan, and it's the first time I've hiked on an actively erupting volcano. My gracious thanks to my hosts, who were hospitable beyond any reasonable expectation. And of course you can't beat the Mayan ruins; my favorite was Yaxha. I heartily recommend both places, but keep your eyes open and maybe you'll learn some things that the media doesn't deem important.

Bobby Mugabe: Still At It

Mugabe managed to hold on to power with his crooked elections and crafted the nice soundbite of "go hang". Perhaps it was the added confidence of a weapons shipment from China that inspired him to re-state his continuing commitment to openness and democratic ideals. Enough. The British Commonwealth, African Union and US need to stand up to this incompetent tyrant and Chinese satellite, and this is a good first step.

RIP George Carlin

My dad was a die-hard submarine officer, GOP market-and-military engineer type Republican, and oddly enough, he loved George Carlin too. Loved him. Enough to take me to see him twice. One of those times I was only 14 and he corrupted two of my friends too. At the time we didn't realize we were seeing a national treasure. My mom emailed me in Guatemala to tell me Carlin had died and to ask me to give back his comedy album, the one that I took with me to college in 1992.

Suffice it to say, I couldn't write a blog with the word "conservative" in the title and agree with every political statement George Carlin ever made, facetious or otherwise. But Carlin was an ardent defender of the First Amendment and lover of
our English language, in ALL its forms. He recently observed that he learned the famous Seven Words from policemen and military men; that's how they really talk. And if they're not patriots, who is?

Chinese Income Inequality

Ever heard people say of a country "there's no middle class there; you're either real rich, or real, real poor." True very often in less-developed countries. Income inequality is often measured by social scientists using the Gini coefficient: the bigger your Gini coefficient, the bigger the rich-poor gap is. In a country where one person has all the money and everyone else is flat broke, the Gini would be 100. In a country where everyone makes exactly the same money, the Gini would be zero.

I'm not going to get into the moral debate of whether governments should redistribute wealth to decrease income disparities, or to what degree. Rather, I'd like to point out that socialist or communist ideologies justify their goal of class-leveling based on the argument that income disparities are a form of injustice; therefore, to produce a just, moral society, disparities should be eliminated by wealth redistribution. Which is exactly why it's so funny that communist China's income inequality is considerably higher than that of the supercapitalist US (44.7 vs 40.8; see pages 50-53). Or rather, it would be funny, that is, if the Chinese government's backward policies weren't retarding the progress of one of the world's great civilizations, keeping its people in the mid-Iron Age and dragging down the rest of us who'd like to benefit from trading and investing there. But isn't China on an upswing, you say? Well, yes, in geopolitical terms, but if you're a farmer in Manchuria, you may not have noticed. Furthermore, if you're looking for the people responsible for China's recent good fortune, you're less likely to find them in the Communist Party than among the businesspeople and scientists in Hong Kong and Shanghai. The problem is those businesspeople are still a vanishingly small fraction of China's population, judging by the Gini coefficient and a per capita income, still today, of $2,458. That's right. By comparison, out of the thirty-four Latin American countries, only five have per capita incomes lower than China's (Bolivia, Guyana, Haiti, Honduras, and Paraguay - yes, even that powerhouse Ecuador blows by them). The world average is $8,125.

I wrote before about P.J. O’Rourke’s encounter with the old boys’ network of regulatory "fixers" that’s rampant in China, which less benevolent bloggers might refer to as "racketeers"; there too I addressed the oddity that the goal of Marx was a classless society, not one with a new professional racketeering caste. It seems that one thing highly centralized economies do succeed in producing is irony.


Don't Think You've Heard the Last From Tibet

These talks won't result in anything concrete, but it's a step that China wasn't willing to take until international attention increased the temperature considerably. We're only a couple months from the Olympics and China is about to be opened to global public discourse in a way it's clearly not ready for. At the same time, the Chinese Communist Party reacts in perceived rational self-interest, and increasing openness (whether too fast for comfort or not) can only diminish the role of the word "perceived".


Are you used to $4 a gallon gas yet?

Don't worry, you'll have plenty of time. I predict oil will never again go below $100 a barrel. 50/50 on whether it ever goes below $120 again.

It's no one's fault. The oil is running out, and it's not a surprise.

As I mentioned before, the Project for a New American Century and its white paper Rebuilding America's Defenses is a curse word for a lot of people inside and outside the GOP because the white paper is seen as the neocon blueprint that got us into the Iraq mess. Yes, Iraq is a mess, and we never should have invaded; but whether the PNAC paper was used as the justification or not, it has the math exactly right. The struggle for the world's remaining resources will only continue to intensify.

Ironically, the invasion of Iraq has made this struggle even worse. And Iraq is only producing oil at about 2/3 its pre-invasion rate. If you smiled when we invaded and waited for the price at your local pump to drop in exchange for American lives, you should be feeling a little bit let down right now. I'm sure you know people who said this openly in March 2003, but of course no one was going to say it out loud on CNN. The problem is that oil doesn't just jump into barrels - you need non-bombed oil rigs manned by technically trained workers.

But the US certainly isn't the only superpower in the world, and for some time I've been writing about China's neocolonial policies in Africa; they're interested not only in oil but in Africa's mineral wealth. China has seen how building transportation infrastructure is making client states of the poorer ASEAN countries, and they're doing the same thing all over Africa - even for regimes like Sudan, and Mauritania, where slavery was finally (nominally) outlawed in 1981. Given China's own human rights record and lack of transparency, it's not surprising that they're quite comfortable building infrastructure for the likes of Sudan and Zimbabwe.

But China and the U.S. are just two players, and the third of course is a Russia increasingly willing to discard any illusion of democracy or transparency. British Petroleum (BP) will not be the first multinational corporation to lose its operations in Russia to Putin-style governmental racketeering. And don't think that Russia doesn't know how to use its energy wealth as a massive bludgeon, especially over its neighbors. (I later added this link about similar encroachment on Exxon in Russia; click through also on their link about "resource nationalism".)

So what can we do? Besides pursuing a sensible multilateral foreign policy with the EU as allies rather than competitors, we can build more nuclear power plants - a position which fortunately is advocated by both major party presidential candidates. As McCain said, if even the French can manage it, why can't we? We need trains, and we need more electric road vehicles and agricultural equipment. At this stage they're the only realistic alternative to oil-powered transportation. Otherwise, we're exposing the US economy to the manipulations of Chinese colonialism and Russian gangsterism - and to the inevitable end of oil that will shake the world economy to the core, global warming or not.

McCain Hangs Out With Televangelists, Starts Losing in Polls

So I'm back from Central America. It's encouraging to visit two countries which which both had civil wars raging less than 20 years ago and are slowly but surely emerging as market democracies, and I'll write plenty on that later. But being out of touch for a while is good in the sense that you can more clearly see changes in public opinion that otherwise might be too gradual to notice.

The two stories I immediately noticed upon getting off the plane in Miami:

- McCain is trailing Obama by six full points, enough to lead at least one publication to refer to an eventual McCain victory in Dewey-Truman terms.

- McCain was kissing Billy Graham's ass in a "private" meeting (a
photograph of which was released to CNN. Very private).


John, if you want to win this election, you have to stop kissing the Religious Right's ass. It can only hurt you.