May 12th, 2010

[BRIEF NOTE] On the Estonian economic model, v 2.0

The Estonian economy was hit very hard by the global credit crunch; saying that its crunch was less bad than Lithuania's and Latvia's isn't saying much. Bloomberg's Ott Ummelas writes that by certain metrics, Estonia--now slated to become a member-state of the rich-countries' club the OECD--is doing considerably better than most of the rest of Europe.

The Baltic state will outperform the 16 euro nations on the EU’s fiscal criteria this year, according to the European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm. That means Estonia will probably receive the backing of EU officials when they assess the country’s euro bid tomorrow, said Christian Keller, chief economist for emerging market currencies at Barclays Capital.

“Estonia seems pretty much a model of the fiscal discipline that the EU now wants to bring to the entire euro area,” Keller, who is based in London, said in an e-mailed response to questions.

[. . .]

European Commission President Jose Barroso said yesterday Estonia “most likely” will join the euro area soon. It would be the second-smallest euro economy after Cyprus, with gross domestic product of about $23 billion.

While Estonia’s government doesn’t have any outstanding bonds, investors trade credit default swaps on the country’s debt. Five-year Estonian CDS averaged 98 basis points since the end of March, compared with 141 basis points on Italian five- year debt. That shows investors would be more at ease holding Estonian debt than bonds issued by a founding euro member.

Estonia, with debt estimated at 9.6 percent of GDP this year and a deficit equal to 2.4 percent of GDP, is an “exception,” and other candidate countries may face delayed membership as higher debt financing costs stretch deficits, Fitch Ratings said May 6.

Estonia’s austerity measures came at the cost of demand, and the economy contracted 14.1 percent last year. GDP shrank a seasonally adjusted 2.3 percent in the first three months of this year, the national statistics office said today.

Good macroeconomics is one thing. Recreating demand in the context of government austerity without risking exposure to cheap credit is another, while just as surely as in Argentina after 2001 the crash created and magnified existing socioeconomic divisions: rates of poverty among retirees and the very numerous unemployed (nearly 15%) are high, and unemployment itself may not return to pre-crash levels for a decade.

[LINK] "Russian navy ‘sent Somali pirates to their death’"

I'm profoundly unimpressed by Somali pirates. Yes, the country is impoverished and chaotic; yes, the use of the fisheries by foreigners and dumping of waste is inappropriate. The fact that these pirates don't put their energies towards actually fixing the country, but instead act like terrorists and thieves, leaves me profoundly unimpressed. I actually think that the different countries with protective naval forces in t4he area should take the gloves off. This, though, is beyond acceptable.

Ten captured Somali piracy suspects are thought to have died after the Russian navy released them in an inflatable boat without navigational equipment, Russian media are reporting. An unnamed source told Russia's Interfax news agency yesterday: "It seems that they all died."

The alleged pirates seized the container ship Moscow University - carrying $50m of crude oil - on May 5 in the Gulf of Aden. Marines from the Russian warship Marshal Shaposhnikov, which patrols the pirate-infested Gulf as part of an international force, stormed the ship the following day, freeing the unharmed crew.

Initially, Russia said the suspected pirates would be taken to Moscow to face trial, but Colonel Alexei Kuznetzov later announced that "imperfections in international law" meant they would instead be released.

An international maritime treaty means suspected pirates can be tried in the home countries of their victims – but some governments have been put off this course of action for fear that convicted pirates might not return to Somalia after serving out their time in jail. Kuznetzov seemed to echo this when he said: "Why should we feed some pirates?"

Russian media reported that the 10 men were set adrift in a boat with no navigational equipment, and that contact was lost with the boat's radio beacon within an hour. However, Commander John Harbour, a spokesman for the EU naval force in Somalia, told the BBC that the loss of navigation equipment would not necessarily be critical and that the signal from the beacon could vanish if the battery ran out or it entered a satellite blind spot.

[BRIEF NOTE] On South Asian Maoism and indigenous peoples

Open Democracy's Rakesh Mani wrote a provocative article, "On Red Alert", suggesting that India's Maoist guerrillas, the Naxalites, are strongest in the Adivasi, India's tribal peoples, in eastern and central India. Why? India's tribal populations are terribly disenfranchised.

In the public lexicon, the narrative of the Naxalites being a grassroots reaction to decades of economic neglect has become an unchallenged truism. It is true that in the tribal areas of states like Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh, poverty is so desperate that joining the Naxalite factions is often the only way out. There are no other alternatives to make a livelihood.

Many argue that the answer lies in investment and infrastructural development on a massive scale, which will create jobs, bring economic advancement and draw the tribal areas closer to the union.

As Aaradhana Jhunjhunwala, the Kolkata-based writer, once pointed out, it is not simply underdevelopment and economic backwardness that lies at the heart of people’s distress. It lies in the deficiency of efficient and democratic governance. Why have Naxalites had the most success in tribal districts over the last decade? It is not accidental. There are clear correlations between areas of tribal habitation and sub-standard levels of socio-economic conditions. The helplessness of tribals in their own matters makes them perfect breeding grounds for revolutionary ideology.

[. . .]

As part of their strategic and tactical approach, the Naxalites have consistently presented themselves as a better alternative by taking up battles on tribal issues and drawing up pro-tribal governance policies.

As the historian Ramachandra Guha has argued, “what the Naxalites have going for them is their lifestyle – they can live with, and more crucially, live like the poor peasant and tribal, eating the same food, wearing the same clothes, eschewing the comforts and seductions of the city. In this readiness to identify with the oppressed, they are in stark contrast to the bureaucrat, the politician and the police officer.”

Mani's thesis doesn't seem so far-fetched to me. Indigenous peoples--especially badly-off indigenous peoples--might be generally attracted to oppositional ideologies if only because they might offer them space to organize their lives. Maoism in Nepal was strongest among the country's non-Nepali populations, offering them self-government and language rights.

[LINK] "The Facebook Privacy War: What is Personal Data?"

Curtis Silver at Wired says pretty much what I think about outrage at social networking systems'--like Facebook's--use of users' personal data. What do you expect?

[D]ata is what you put in the computer, that goes to the internet and either gets lost or sold. That is what data is. It’s inevitable and a side effect of doing business on the internet. It’s also a side effect of doing pleasure on the internet, and that is where the adjective “personal” comes in. So what exactly is “personal” on the internet? Well, that’s easy. Nothing. Not a damn thing. You may think it is, but it isn’t. That’s not just paranoia talking - someone, somewhere has access to your personal data. From the I.T. guys running the bank servers, to the advertisers buying it from your email client, to Facebook opening it up for the world to see.

Don’t even get me started on privacy. It’s the internet. Not a shrinks office. Though that’s debatable sometimes.

The inherent problem then is expectations. People expect their “personal” data to remain personal and private. This expectation is set at some point by the site they are entering their personal data into. Or, it’s a site like Linkedin, where the expectation of complete transparency is set. The thing is, as Loren mentioned in the video, no one reads the terms of service contracts. When you click the little check box and hit continue, you are agreeing to pages and pages of legalese that pretty much state you don’t have any personal data and you have absolutely no privacy on that site. They own it all. This isn’t true for every site of course, but a good majority of them.

The lesson here is that you should only put data on the internet that you are comfortable with being shared, viewed or sold by people that are not you. In this era of social media and sharing, there have been so many cases of just blatant ignorance. What do you think will happen if you put inappropriate pictures on Facebook when your boss is on your friend list? Nothing? This isn’t the era of anonymous postings in forums and BBS chat rooms anymore. We remember that, but do our kids?

In order for them to understand what privacy and personal data is when it comes to the internet, we need to understand what it is. We need to educate ourselves by reading those terms of service contracts, noting which sites are sharing and which ones aren’t as well as being vigilant as to what kind of personal data we’re so eagerly sharing with the world. We need to realize that what we think is personal or private is nothing of the sort.

[LINK] "Bisexual Erasure"

The Volokh Conspiracy is, as Wikipedia puts it, "a weblog which mostly covers United States legal and political issues, generally from a libertarian or conservative perspective." That's the reason why I'm a bit surprised--but only a bit; the blog's overall tone is libertarian--to see Eugene Volokh's own take on the "Is Elena Kagan a lesbian?" debate. Why can't she be bi?

As I understand it, the great majority of women who are not purely heterosexual are actually to some degree bisexual. For instance, Laumann et al., The Social Organization of Sexuality 311 (1994), reports that 3.7% of all women report having had both male and female partners since age 18 and only 0.4% report having had only female partners since age 18. Even looking at just the last five years, 1.4% of women report both male and female partners, and only 0.8% report only female partners. When asked about current sexual attraction, 2.7% of all women report mostly opposite gender, 0.8% report both genders, 0.6% report mostly same gender, and only 0.3% report only same gender. And my sense is that many women quite sensibly call themselves “lesbian” or “gay” based on their current or recent partners, or currently or recently felt preferences, even though they have had male partners in the past as well. (Thus, when asked to report their sexual identity, 0.5% of all women in the Laumann report said bisexual, 0.9% said homosexual, and 98.6% said heterosexual.)

Now I stress again: Whether Elena Kagan is straight, lesbian, bisexual, or asexual doesn’t matter to me. Moreover, to the extent a number of her close friends, who are likely to know her recent love life, say that she’s straight rather than lesbian or bisexual — and that seems to be something that one of her friends quoted in the Politico article I linked to above is saying — that should be pretty reliable evidence for those who care about the subject. Among other things, if she understandably concludes that it’s beneath her dignity to discuss her love life in public, evidence from a number of friends is the most that can be provided: “[C]ontrast the ease of proving one is straight or gay in a world in which bisexuals are not acknowledged to exist with the difficulty of proving the same thing in a world in which bisexuals are recognized.”

But the sort of bisexual erasure that takes place when we say “X can’t be lesbian, she’s dated men” (or “X can’t be gay, he’s dated women”) strikes me as pretty unsound, and not fair to a group that makes up a pretty big chunk of the non-straight population.

I've found this sort of thing so annoying in my personal life; I'm just glad Volokh enunciated this point.

[LINK] "Life on Earth Arose Just Once"

Does all life on Earth descend from a single ancestor? According to this Wired Science report, yes, it did.

For his analysis, [biochemist Douglas] Theobald selected 23 proteins that are found across the taxonomic spectrum but have structures that differ from one species to another. He looked at those proteins in 12 species — four each from the bacterial, archaeal and eukaryotic domains of life.

Then he performed computer simulations to evaluate how likely various evolutionary scenarios were to produce the observed array of proteins.

Theobald found that scenarios featuring a universal common ancestor won hands down against even the best-performing multi-ancestor models. “The universal common ancestor (models) didn’t just explain the data better, they were also the simplest, so they won on both counts,” Theobald says.

A model that had a single common ancestor and allowed for some gene- swapping among species was even better than a simple tree of life. Such a scenario is 103,489 times more probable than the best multi-ancestor model, Theobald found.

Theobald’s study does not address how many times life may have arisen on Earth. Life could have originated many times, but the study suggests that only one of those primordial events yielded the array of organisms living today. “It doesn’t tell you where the deep ancestor was,” Penny says. “But what it does say is that there was one common ancestor among all those little beasties.”

The article doesn't note that there might also be life forms as yet undiscovered with different ancestries, perhaps in environments wildly different from the ones we encounter, buried deep in the Earth's crust, say.