Archive for March, 2010

Israel/Palestine remainders

Only skimmed it, but this looks like a very good piece on the current situation from Tony Karon.

The translated Yediot Ahronot interview with “Boogie” Ya’halon, Vice Prime minister of Israel, is depressing. Here’s the end of it:

Yaalon annoyed his colleagues on the left quite a bit when he made a comparison between outposts in the territories and Kibbutz Lehavot-Haviva in the Hefer Valley. He makes no retraction, and scornfully rejects Talia Sasson’s report (“a report born in sin”).

Q. Your comparison is problematic. Lehavot-Haviva is within the consensus. The settlements are a controversial enterprise.

“Lehavot-Haviva was founded when the state was established without a master plan. Does that make it an illegal settlement? The State of Israel built the outposts in Judea and Samaria-the Housing Ministry, the Jewish Agency Settlement Department, the Israel Electric Corporation, the Public Works Department. And this is the sin, when they claim that they are illegal.

“Tear down the homes in the Yovel neighborhood in Eli or in a new settlement? What are we talking about? What goes for them goes for Lehavot-Haviva, too. Let us not become confused.” […]

This is a perfect illustration of what separates the current far-right government of Israel from, well, everyone else. I don’t claim to be an expert on Israeli urban planning, but the basic background is this: the “settlements” that we’ve all heard so much about are areas settled by Israeli civilians in the occupied territories (primarily the West Bank and East Jerusalem). Almost every independent observer holds these to be illegal under international law, because they go beyond Israel’s internationally recognized 1948 borders (the Green Line). The Israeli far right basically believes that the Green Line is null and void as a legitimate border and that the government can settle people pretty much wherever it wants within these areas.

Lehavot-Haviva, on the other hand, is a kibbutz that sits on the Israeli side of the Green Line, founded in the early 1950s. There is nothing problematic from an international law perspective about Israel building towns within its internationally recognized borders, of course. But Lehavot-Haviva, as I understand it, was technically illegal too – but under Israeli law, because it was settled before any municipal plan had been approved for it. So it’s a convenient example for ultranationalist politicians who want to claim that settlements in the West Bank are no less acceptable than settlements within Israel itself. The far right thinks it can get away with doubling down on this extremist position, essentially claiming that Israel doesn’t need to comply with international law concerning its borders and that only Israeli law applies when determining the legality of settlements. ¬†The smackdown the Netanyahu government was dealt this week, I hope, will start taking the legitimacy of this position down a few pegs with the Israeli public. But I fear that the opposite is just as likely to happen.

Rock, meet hard place

Tough times for Bibi.

You’d think he would have learned the first time around how this movie’s probably going to end.

Deep thoughts on the Frum firing

Re: David Frum getting canned from AEI:

1. Any organization that simultaneously a) continues to employ Norm Ornstein while b) firing David Frum for presumably failing to toe the line on health care reform is…strange to say the least.

2. Was Ornstein also subject to the edict (granted, this is secondhand info) from AEI brass to not speak to the media about health care reform? If so, why was he allowed to publish this mostly celebratory piece about it?

3. The best theory I have on this is that AEI keeps Ornstein on because it allows them to keep up the pretense that they are not a nakedly political organ but a serious think tank with bipartisan credibility. If that’s the case and if Frum was fired for his apostasy, I think Ornstein is obligated to resign if he wants to keep his own reputation intact. Otherwise he’s not taking part in an honest dialogue, but rather knowingly abetting partisan hacks.

4. Of course, I could be wrong. Maybe Frum really was fired for too much time as a TV talking head, or some dispute about money, or for stealing people’s sandwiches out of the AEI breakroom fridge. Maybe.

Parks matter!

I’ve been following the Yglesias/Drum/Atrios discussion on walkable urbanism and density and after reading the latest post from Matt on the subject, took a look at the Wikipedia list of the densest places in America. Some of them are obvious but then there are some that are surprising – for example, Sweetwater, Florida to an outside observer just blends in as another suburb in the Miami sprawl, as, I would guess, do El Monte and some of the other ones in Southern California. And, having lived in Boston, I (like Matt) was surprised to see Somerville come out 20% denser than Cambridge. Somerville is not exactly the most walkable or urban-feeling place in the Boston area; the subway only touches the fringes of town and it’s a hike getting from one end of the city to the other.

So I took a look on the map. And what I think is inflating the density of El Monte, Sweetwater, and Somerville is that in comparison with their neighbors, they don’t have any sizeable parks. Cambridge has Cambridge Common and big expanses like Harvard Yard and MIT that are covered in non-residential university buildings. Somerville has little postage stamps of green space here and there, but that’s about it. ¬†Sweetwater’s boundaries are configured in such a way that the big Florida International University campus across the street isn’t part of the town. El Monte, also no big parks. Whereas New York and San Francisco and Boston manage to achieve almost this density while encompassing huge spaces like Central Park or Golden Gate Park. Forgoing parks will help increase your density number, but in the real world it doesn’t help make you more walkable or urban.

More on Thaksin

Quick addendum to the last post: in reading up on Thai politics I came across the Thai version of the Onion, which actually turns out to be pretty funny! (It’s spoofing this newspaper.) One of the articles in it suggests that the class and ethnic strife was mostly a sideshow; instead it claims that the dominant cause of the 2006 coup against Thaksin was simply that he misplayed civil-military relations and the army reacted against what they saw as an outsider’s attempt to horn in on their turf.

Meanwhile, in Thailand

Anti-government, pro-Thaksin Shinawatra protestors dump their own blood in front of the current Thai PM’s house.

I haven’t researched this very heavily, so I may well be wrong about the driving forces in Thai politics. But it seems like the last 5 years or so have been an object lesson in what happens in a country with both stark inequality and some sectionalist/ethnic tension when things take a turn toward left-ish populism. Bangkok, though certainly not rich by Western standards, is really well-off compared to the rest of the country, and the base of most anti-Thaksin sentiment. While I’m sure he wasn’t absolutely free from corruption, Thaksin sure appears to have been about the only Thai PM in history to genuinely take steps to lift the rural poor out of poverty. A lot of the case against him seems to be based not on the merits of what he did as PM, but on rank provincialism: Thaksin is a northerner, and thus only kinda sorta a “real” Thai in the eyes of the Bangkok oligarchy. It’s spooky to see how easily democracy can fall when powerful people have petty grievances against it.

Nobody likes a party pooper

Just watched Michael Lewis on the Daily Show make an excellent point about short selling. Quizzed by Jon on whether shorting was somehow sleazy, Lewis pointed out that shorting is about the only way you can get bad (but true) market news to come to light. Without shorting, everyone’s vested interests are in a company’s doing better and better (at least on paper), so there’s no real incentive to catch companies when they try to pass off fictitious value as the real thing (e.g., outright fraud, making unrealistically positive forecasts, etc.) But if you have short sellers there’s a constituency calling for the exposure of things that are artificially inflating value.

Of course, there’s no reason this concept can’t apply to other environments, as well. It seems obvious to me that this is where groupthink comes from in corporate environments, for instance. The rewards for telling the boss (true) bad news are puny compared to the rewards for telling him/her (true) good news, so there’s basically no room for shorting here. Nobody gets a big promotion for warning that you’re about to hit an iceberg. Instead, everyone tries to bend the news toward being good…even when it isn’t. And you end up with an organization that has an increasingly adversarial relationship with reality.