Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Journalistic Insight

The Sunday Times' sting has no peer

Jonathan Calvert is a remarkable reporter. Almost fifteen years ago, he and I were part of the Sunday Times Investigations Unit called Insight. It was here that the darker arts were practised in the pursuit of the truth. There were more than a few laws bent to get a story. But in one role JC was magnificent - he could act as a small time businessman looking to pay elected representatives to further his interest.

So it was that he and I went off to see what happened if MPs were offered cash to put down parliamentary questions. I did the Labour lot - and nobody took the bait although a couple came close, as I recall. Two Tories were caught. This piece of journalism, a splash in the Sunday Times in July 1994, launched the flood of sleaze that submerged the Major government. Now JC has done it again with another classic sting operation in the weekend papers - the price of a peer to fix the law. Selling public office for private gain is one lesson from history that parliamentarians and peers need to learn.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Crisis! What Crisis?

You don't need Jim Rogers (above) to see that Labour is not working in Britain. Today's bad news sees unemployment top 1.9m, the highest since 1999.

This is the tip of the icebrg. With sterling falling to the lowest level since 2001 versus the dollar as well as dropping a fourth day against the euro, the pound appears without a parachute. Then there's the small matter of the taxpayer shelling out a few hundred billion quid for the banks' toxic assets. Oh and did we mention a possible sovereign debt problem of IMF-sized proportions? So there's a possible run on banks, the pound and the nation's pile of debt.

On whose watch did this mess occur? At some point voters are going to turn on the current administration. Gordon Brown may have to sack a lot of people (start at the Financial Services Authority for failing to squeeze the banks until they squeaked) to save his own job.

Obama's inaugural address

The full speech, sent out by the Presidential Inaugural Committee.

Sober but telling. Both the country and the world are left the better for it.

My fellow citizens: I stand here today humbled by the task before us, grateful for the trust you have bestowed, mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors. I thank President Bush for his service to our nation, as well as the generosity and cooperation he has shown throughout this transition.

Forty-four Americans have now taken the presidential oath. The words have been spoken during rising tides of prosperity and the still waters of peace. Yet, every so often the oath is taken amidst gathering clouds and raging storms. At these moments, America has carried on not simply because of the skill or vision of those in high office, but because We the People have remained faithful to the ideals of our forebearers, and true to our founding documents.

So it has been. So it must be with this generation of Americans.

That we are in the midst of crisis is now well understood. Our nation is at war, against a far-reaching network of violence and hatred. Our economy is badly weakened, a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age. Homes have been lost; jobs shed; businesses shuttered. Our health care is too costly; our schools fail too many; and each day brings further evidence that the ways we use energy strengthen our adversaries and threaten our planet.

These are the indicators of crisis, subject to data and statistics. Less measurable but no less profound is a sapping of confidence across our land - a nagging fear that America's decline is inevitable, and that the next generation must lower its sights.

Today I say to you that the challenges we face are real. They are serious and they are many. They will not be met easily or in a short span of time. But know this, America - they will be met.

On this day, we gather because we have chosen hope over fear, unity of purpose over conflict and discord.

On this day, we come to proclaim an end to the petty grievances and false promises, the recriminations and worn out dogmas, that for far too long have strangled our politics.

We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted - for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things - some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.

For us, they packed up their few worldly possessions and traveled across oceans in search of a new life.

For us, they toiled in sweatshops and settled the West; endured the lash of the whip and plowed the hard earth.

For us, they fought and died, in places like Concord and Gettysburg; Normandy and Khe Sanh.

Time and again these men and women struggled and sacrificed and worked till their hands were raw so that we might live a better life. They saw America as bigger than the sum of our individual ambitions; greater than all the differences of birth or wealth or faction.

This is the journey we continue today. We remain the most prosperous, powerful nation on Earth. Our workers are no less productive than when this crisis began. Our minds are no less inventive, our goods and services no less needed than they were last week or last month or last year. Our capacity remains undiminished. But our time of standing pat, of protecting narrow interests and putting off unpleasant decisions - that time has surely passed. Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.

For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act - not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology's wonders to raise health care's quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do.

Now, there are some who question the scale of our ambitions - who suggest that our system cannot tolerate too many big plans. Their memories are short. For they have forgotten what this country has already done; what free men and women can achieve when imagination is joined to common purpose, and necessity to courage.

What the cynics fail to understand is that the ground has shifted beneath them - that the stale political arguments that have consumed us for so long no longer apply. The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works - whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account - to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day - because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

Nor is the question before us whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control - and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous. The success of our economy has always depended not just on the size of our Gross Domestic Product, but on the reach of our prosperity; on our ability to extend opportunity to every willing heart - not out of charity, but because it is the surest route to our common good.

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake. And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.

Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

We are the keepers of this legacy. Guided by these principles once more, we can meet those new threats that demand even greater effort - even greater cooperation and understanding between nations. We will begin to responsibly leave Iraq to its people, and forge a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan. With old friends and former foes, we will work tirelessly to lessen the nuclear threat, and roll back the specter of a warming planet. We will not apologize for our way of life, nor will we waver in its defense, and for those who seek to advance their aims by inducing terror and slaughtering innocents, we say to you now that our spirit is stronger and cannot be broken; you cannot outlast us, and we will defeat you.

For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus - and non-believers. We are shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this Earth; and because we have tasted the bitter swill of civil war and segregation, and emerged from that dark chapter stronger and more united, we cannot help but believe that the old hatreds shall someday pass; that the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve; that as the world grows smaller, our common humanity shall reveal itself; and that America must play its role in ushering in a new era of peace.

To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect. To those leaders around the globe who seek to sow conflict, or blame their society's ills on the West - know that your people will judge you on what you can build, not what you destroy. To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.

To the people of poor nations, we pledge to work alongside you to make your farms flourish and let clean waters flow; to nourish starved bodies and feed hungry minds. And to those nations like ours that enjoy relative plenty, we say we can no longer afford indifference to suffering outside our borders; nor can we consume the world's resources without regard to effect. For the world has changed, and we must change with it.

As we consider the road that unfolds before us, we remember with humble gratitude those brave Americans who, at this very hour, patrol far-off deserts and distant mountains. They have something to tell us today, just as the fallen heroes who lie in Arlington whisper through the ages. We honor them not only because they are guardians of our liberty, but because they embody the spirit of service; a willingness to find meaning in something greater than themselves. And yet, at this moment - a moment that will define a generation - it is precisely this spirit that must inhabit us all.

For as much as government can do and must do, it is ultimately the faith and determination of the American people upon which this nation relies. It is the kindness to take in a stranger when the levees break, the selflessness of workers who would rather cut their hours than see a friend lose their job which sees us through our darkest hours. It is the firefighter's courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent's willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate.

Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends - hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism - these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility - a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.

This is the price and the promise of citizenship.

This is the source of our confidence - the knowledge that God calls on us to shape an uncertain destiny.

This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed - why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall, and why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath.

So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America's birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:

"Let it be told to the future world...that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive...that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it]."

America. In the face of our common dangers, in this winter of our hardship, let us remember these timeless words. With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come. Let it be said by our children's children that when we were tested we refused to let this journey end, that we did not turn back nor did we falter; and with eyes fixed on the horizon and God's grace upon us, we carried forth that great gift of freedom and delivered it safely to future generations.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Obama: too smart for president?

Obamania peaks today with inauguration of the country’s 44th president. No other country makes such a drama out of its politics like America. This is a happy ending to the Obama fairy tale. A black boy from nowhere rises to become head of the most powerful state in the world. Today is just where the story begins.

The power of the presidency is a strangely malleable thing - one that is moulded largely by the incumbent’s personality and its personification of the popular mood. Obama has proved a natural at doing this well.

The US is a populist political culture where politicians express in large part what the public feels. During the campaign the president-elect hit the right notes on Iraq, the credit crunch and Afghanistan long before anyone else in public life. One British minister recently spoke to me of Obama in Jedi-like terms, of his “preternatural ability” in sensing what lies beyond the political horizon.

Apart from race, the most important thing about the new president is that it marks the return of the Intellectual in Office. Obama is smart. This has been a hindrance in the US political system. Clever people are not seen as warm. They are portrayed - especially by their opponents - as sly, elite types who claim to be able to fix America but cannot fix a flat tyre.

It's not always fatal. Bill Clinton was a brainy guy but it was hidden in a fug of cigar smoke, semen-stained dresses and big haired blondes. With Bill there was no moral character to ruin. Clearly Obama owes a big thank you to George W Bush, the frat boy president who nearly sunk America.

Obama’s popularity was not down to the fact he was one of the guys. Sometimes this backfired on him. Obama had to hide the fact he played hoops well and then embarrassingly turn up at bowling alleys looking like he was lost.

On this day of triumph there are reasons to worry. The United States has a tradition of resenting intellectuals, seeing them as anti-egalitarian and lacking a common touch. For all the universities and think tanks in the US, Americans are more in thrall to the public concern, independence and self-respect of ordinary citizens than any qualities possessed by a college professor.

For Obama the trick will be to mask his penchant for deliberation and precise thinking with quick, snappy decision-making and seizing of the right opportunities. Only his meanest opponents would not wish him well.

PS I am in Britain, so the Asian bit of musings may have to wait a while

Monday, January 19, 2009

Israel's biblical law: 100 eyes for an eye

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Thanks to the delusions of the Bush years, Israel's mailed fist strategy had been overshadowed by the bigger and uglier punches thrown by America in the Middle East. No longer.

Twenty two days of war have left more than 1,300 Palestinians dead. About half of them have been civilians. Israeli deaths numbered 13 - nine in combat and four from Hamas's rockets. That's a death ratio of 1 Israeli to 100 Palestinians.

This show of strength is what happens when intellect gets swallowed by fanaticism. Israel looks like it will never engage in meaningful negotiations with its Arab neighbours to end disputes. The last three weeks show that Tel Aviv thinks it better to resort to overwhelming military force. Hamas has no finer recruiting officer than the Israeli Defence Force. The zealotry Hamas espouses will now grow longer roots in Gazan soil.

The only winners will be colonial Zionism and militant Islamism, blood brothers in war.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Chandni Chowk to China, India and Chindia

"You are looking at a film that does appalling things to Indo-Chinese relations" - Subash K Jha

Chandni Chowk to China is apparently a "movie" - backed by Hollywood - that was supposed to herald a new wave of Chindian films. The reviews say it all however. Hammy acting, ridiculous fight sequences and heaps of bluntly racist stereotyping confirm that Asia's two great cultures will remain joined by geography and little else. At least the actors have fun. The audience do not.

Given the vast gaps in understanding between the peoples of the two countries, I am convinced that Buddhism will remain the last significant cultural export from India to China.

See for yourself below

Monday, January 12, 2009

The heat is on... Google

Two search requests on the internet website Google produce as much carbon dioxide as boiling a kettle

America needs to wean itself off its dependency to know more about everything, everywhere, everytime...

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