Talking out of both sides of your trading heart

The Bush Administration, ardent free traders when it comes to U.S. industry’s access to other markets have imposed new import restrictions on Chinese textiles or European steel. According to the Financial Times: “This decision demonstrates the Bush administration’s commitment to our trade rules and to America’s workers,” said Don Evans, US commerce secretary.

Yeah, right. If free trade is a principal, try sticking to it unless the actual impact of an import will be to lower the workplace safety and treatment of workers, not using trade restrictions to compensate for lack of competitive offerings by American companies. Be for the worker by helping to create new industries and do that by helping people learn new skills. The extra billions of dollars in trade lost during a import/export skirmish with China could fund hundreds of thousands of educational courses and thousands of new businesses.

Invest in growing competitive advantages, don’t protect dying companies and their investors, who benefit far more than the workers from these restrictions.

This is another example of ham-handedness by the Bush Administration in foreign relations, which only reinforces the perception that the U.S. wants only its way and that other countries only options are summed up in the phrase “You’re with us or against us.”

Smart analysis of shifting economic analysis

I ran across this piece from Global Insight while doing financial sector research in the middle of the night. Smart stuff and points out that the upcoming redefinition of real GDP will skewer year-to-year analysis of economic performance, making it seem better, just at the beginning of the election year. Gee, I wonder if there was any political influence on the pure science of economic statistics? Nah, couldn’t be….

An excerpt:

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blockquote>Benchmark revisions update extended periods of history and are released separately from the regular monthly or quarterly data releases. The most recent example was the revision of the Federal Reserve’s industrial production data. The benchmark revision was released on November 10 and covered the period through September. On November 14, the Fed released the regular monthly report with new data for October, but also the revisions for August and September stemming from the inclusion of late reports and other new information.

A shock wave is coming on December 10, when the Bureau of Economic Analysis will release its benchmark revisions to the national income accounts. This whammy will throw an additional curve—a base-year change. Data pulled either from Global Insight databanks or from the BEA’s web site on December 10 will differ from what was there on December 9. The revised data will go only through the second quarter of 2003, so in effect, there will be no revised third-quarter data until the regular monthly GDP release on December 23. Trying to link the new historical data with the preliminary third-quarter GDP data that will be released on November 25 will be inadvisable because of the many conceptual changes in the detail data.

What is the Net, marketplace, commons or temporary autonomous zone?

Dave Winer has issued a call for candidates to stand up for the protection of the Internet from media conglomerates who would love nothing more than to sanitize this fertile virtual ground with the salts of digital rights management and pabulum served up warm and gooey every day. Doc Searls joins in with a blast from the recent past, Saving the Net, saying, essentially, that we have to treat the Net as a public domain which is a natural habitat for markets.

Dave says there are two simple reasons for his call:

1. First, I’m part of a constituency, like many others, who are looking for a candidate to vote for who supports our primary issue. Nothing unusual about that, easy to understand.

2. But as important, it would signal that the candidate is not beholden to the media companies. I would happily give money to candidates for ads that warn that the media industry is trying to rob us of our future, and explains how important it is to protect the independence of the Internet. Use the media industry channels to undermine their efforts to the control channels they don’t own, yet.

Doc’s take is basically pragmatic, what he refers to as “conservative.” Doc and I are both thought of as liberals, but I know we are both fond of the type of rugged individualist conservatism that our grandparents practiced, sans all the socially retrograde hatred of people who are different than us. That, however, is just an aside.

My take on this issue of making the Net my primary issue is that this would be both counter-productive and destructive to the Net as a thing, since it puts the definition of the Net into the political domain when what is really at stake is a series of procedural decisions about the flow of information. The Net is a lot of different stuff, much more than a habitat for markets and much less than a civil society, since the design of the thing has relegated real freedom to a technical elite who can, like Neo in The Matrix, rewrite the rules. If we understand the Internet as a mental space where we can define new relationships for different periods of time, the experience of being connected is that of entering a series of temporary autonomous zones where different connections and rules are possible for limited periods of time before mores ossify into rigid standards. But — and it is a big qualification — for the majority of the population of the Net, the rules are firmly locked in and they like it that way, since they get a predictable and “safe” experience. The politics of fear are already well established here: porn; pederasty; terror cells and you name the flavor of fear of the day pervade the public consciousness when it comes to the Web.

Procedural freedoms, such as rules that say we will always have a choice, are minimalist conditions for freedom. What we need are freedoms which are both a means and an end, in the sense that economist Amartya Sen describes in his book Development As Freedom. This requires that one think widely and deeply about the factors that add up to our sense of freedom. Not only is free access to ideas important, so is a full stomach and an education. The Net as a primary issue is devoid of the power to transform the life of a person who hasn’t enough to eat.

Procedural decisions, such as the implementation of an end-to-end digital rights management regime, should be resisted, but they ignore the wider role of prosperity in society about which the Dean and Clark campaigns, among others, are, at least, evincing concern. As Amartya Sen writes, the real question is the kind of life we’d like to live, and I am certain that the prosperity we want extends beyond the cosmos of bits into the cosmos of atoms and stomachs and minds hungry for economic opportunity. The libertarian take on all this is severely reductionist, since it ignores the built-in inequities that shape choices in favor of the simple availability of choice. A choice between starvation and a broadband connection is meaningless.

Doc wrote that the issue of saving the Net revolves around a notion of ownership or, rather, a common ownership of this place, that is contested by neoconservative market-as-arbiter-of-social-value advocates:

Two oddly allied mentalities provide intellectual air cover for these threats to the marketplace. One is the extreme comfort certain industries feel inside their regulatory environments. The other is the high regard political conservatives hold for successful enterprises. Combine the two, and you get conservatives eagerly rewarding companies whose primary achievements consist of successful long-term adaptation to highly regulated environments.

That’s what’s happened with broadcasting and telecom.

There are barely more than 100 channels apiece on the AM and FM bands. No region can allow more than a couple dozen local signals at most or the signals step on each other–which they do anyway, as the FCC has generally relaxed interference protections over the years to allow more stations on the air. The carrying capacities of satellites and cable systems also limit the number of available channels. If you want to operate a new station of any kind on licensed broadcast spectrum, your chances of finding an opening are approximately zero. It’s a closed club.

What we really need is to make the Net an issue while preserving the ability of individuals to earn a livelihood and companies to turn a profit on the Net. We need a strong tax regime to extract the value of participation in those markets by the people in order to pay for the continued evolution of freedom. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said that taxes are the price we pay to live in a free society. Well, if the Net is a fine old thing, let’s keep it as free as possible while ensuring it is an environment where a commons and a profit can coexist. I am not suggesting we pay a tax for the Net or on sales made over the Net, but that we reinvigorate our taxation of corporate profits where those profits are earned (out here, in the physical world, where dollars change hands) in order to invest in preserving a vast portion of the Net for unfettered public debate and sharing of information. Let’s not reduce this communications media (for it is several media in one) to a place where commercial interests control the messages we see and hear. Let’s invest as a society in a growing commons in the context of the wider needs of society — American and international, alike — so that when we pass along this world to our grandchildren it is ripe with opportunity and not a place of built-in limits.

The Net is a means to increased freedom and free communication of ideas and opinion is an end in itself. Without the wider context of the question of an American dream of a better world for our children and an international dream of a better world for everyone’s children, free of hunger, ignorance and dogmatism, among a whole slew of human suffering that we might inflict on one another, the Net is just a distraction from the serious issues of policy that are reshaping the world as one where competition exists without cooperation.

Let’s not make the Net a single-issue constituency. Leave that kind of parochialism to the occupants of gated communities.

Bill Moyers on our democracy’s vanishing act, brought to you by the media

An important speech to read. Just an excerpt from Bill Moyers address to the National Conference on Media Reform:

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blockquote>ever has there been an administration so disciplined in secrecy, so precisely in lockstep in keeping information from the people at large and – in defiance of the Constitution – from their representatives in Congress. Never has the so powerful a media oligopoly – the word is Barry Diller’s, not mine – been so unabashed in reaching like Caesar for still more wealth and power. Never have hand and glove fitted together so comfortably to manipulate free political debate, sow contempt for the idea of government itself, and trivialize the people’s need to know. When the journalist-historian Richard Reeves was once asked by a college student to define “real news”, he answered: “The news you and I need to keep our freedoms.” When journalism throws in with power that’s the first news marched by censors to the guillotine. The greatest moments in the history of the press came not when journalists made common cause with the state but when they stood fearlessly independent of it.

  Which brings me to the third powerful force – beyond governmental secrecy and megamedia conglomerates – that is shaping what Americans see, read, and hear. I am talking now about that quasi-official partisan press ideologically linked to an authoritarian administration that in turn is the ally and agent of the most powerful interests in the world. This convergence dominates the marketplace of political ideas today in a phenomenon unique in our history. You need not harbor the notion of a vast, right wing conspiracy to think this more collusion more than pure coincidence. Conspiracy is unnecessary when ideology hungers for power and its many adherents swarm of their own accord to the same pot of honey. Stretching from the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal to the faux news of Rupert Murdoch’s empire to the nattering nabobs of no-nothing radio to a legion of think tanks paid for and bought by conglomerates – the religious, partisan and corporate right have raised a mighty megaphone for sectarian, economic, and political forces that aim to transform the egalitarian and democratic ideals embodied in our founding documents. Authoritarianism. With no strong opposition party to challenge such triumphalist hegemony, it is left to journalism to be democracy’s best friend. That is why so many journalists joined with you in questioning Michael Powell’s bid – blessed by the White House – to permit further concentration of media ownership. If free and independent journalism committed to telling the truth without fear or favor is suffocated, the oxygen goes out of democracy. And there is a surer way to intimidate and then silence mainstream journalism than to be the boss.

Thanks to Lisa Rein for the link.

If the U.S. is going to stand astride the world, let the world have its say

Joi Ito has a long piece about the colossus the United States has become, in which he says: “I’m not (yet) asking to be allowed to participate in the US elections, but I do think it is important to understand just how important it is for the US to get along with its neighbors.”

Joi is Japanese, though he is on Howard Dean’s Internet policy advisory team. He says we need a global democracy. I think we’re getting one.

Despite a brewing howl from the far right, who invited this situation upon us and that will complain about “foreigners interfering with the U.S. electoral process,” the United States is about to feel the full impact of the meaning of the word democracy, and not just by inflicting its definition on other lands. Rather, the world is going to participate in our elections whether we like it or not through contributions made online to the Dean campaign, MoveOn.org and other political action committees that will deploy massive amounts of money in support of a greater debate, one that reaches beyond our borders. Check out Democracy aid ’04, a project to get every European to give a dollar to MoveOn.org.

I’d wager that for every $100 anti-Bush campaigns raise, foreigners might contribute all of $5 to Bush’s reelection campaign.

I cannot think of a better or more just path for this country. If we believe in democracy, bring it on, let’s talk with the world about our leadership.

Technorati growing, aching

Dave Sifry’s got a few words on why Technorati has been straining to keep up with its phenomenal growth. They’re adding 8,000 to 9,000 blogs a day, about one every 11 seconds. He reports a blog is updated once every 0.86 seconds.

Send your donations now (you even get more functionality in return) — Dave and the gang who put Technorati together are doing great and important work to meld the dissonance into something comprehensible every day.

Live on CNN – The flag hanging upside down

CNN has gone live to a shot of Buckingham Palace, where someone has hung an American flag upside down. What’s ironic about this is that it takes a trip by our president to get the cameras rolling on how people elsewhere feel about the United States. It’s even worse that this is the case with our closest ally.

In an extraordinary display of objectivity, the anchor said: “Is this anyway to welcome President Bush to Britain? Come on!” Just the facts, eh?

Bush: The Anti-democrat (small “d”)

The Financial Times has a critique of the Bush plan for Iraq and the recent speech by the President about democracy in the Middle East. I’d go so far as to say that Bush’s speech was a good one, acknowledging that it expressed ideas about the meaning of democracy that are important, if only the President meant what he said.

From the FT:

President George W. Bush made a rather better speech than usual last week, declaring his fervent commitment to building democracy around the world. There was less leaden lip-service to the defeat of America’s foes and rather more readiness to admit to mistakes in US policies in the past, especially in the Middle East.

It was a good speech for its audience – the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, a sort of democratic missionary society founded when Ronald Reagan was president. It sounded like a necessary speech, too, for worried American voters, unhappy at losing so many lives and spending so much money in Iraq.

It also revealed a lot about what is wrong with US foreign policy under this administration. For the problem is that Mr Bush’s global mission is likely to be greeted with hollow laughs abroad. It exposes US double standards. It suggests Mr Bush believes democracy can be imposed from the top down. And it reveals an alarmingly US-centred view of what form democracy should take, with too much emphasis on the market economy and too little on the rule of law and protection of human rights.

The trouble is that, internationally, US actions speak louder than words. Take last month’s elections in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, a strategically situated oil-rich US ally on the shores of the Caspian, ruled for the past 10 years by Heydar Aliyev, the former Communist party leader. Thanks to careful “management”, the poll delivered an overwhelming victory for his son Ilham.

Democracy this was not. It was a blatant fix. International election observers described it variously as “a complete fraud” and “a sham”. Intimidation was rife, and ballot boxes were stuffed. Yet within two days Mr Aliyev Junior had been congratulated on his victory by Richard Armitage, the deputy US secretary of state.

Such glaring differences in word and action, especially with regards the Bush Administration’s willingness to finish what it started in Iraq now that it plans to repeat the disastrous Vietnamization strategy, which will only create a hotbed of anti-American and anti-Western activity, cannot go untested. Unbelievably, Ambassador Paul Bremer has started discussing how the U.S. may continue a presence in Iraq after June 2004 — by election time next year, Iraq could be a slaugtherhouse, but we are prepared to leave?

Taking the nonsense a step further, the President said yesterday that the U.S. would go to war again, alone, to extend “freedom.” If only this President would be willing to share the power he seized in Iraq with the United Nations instead of bragging that we can go it alone, his comments about democracy would not ring hollow.