Budding liberals

The fumes are billowing thick and hot in Berlin. The two parties that make up Germany’s governing coalition are at a standoff. J?rgen Trittin, the Green environment minister, plans to introduce emissions trading, and wants to achieve an initial reduction in emissions by 2007. Economics minister Wolfgang Clement of the SPD wants no reduction in emissions.

This is shaping up to be an ugly intra-coalition squabble. Chancellor Gerhard Schr?der is going to have to make a decision, and whichever way he goes, it’s not likely to have a happy ending for him. If he backs Clement, he risks by far the most serious crisis his coalition has yet faced. If he backs Trittin, Clement may walk. (You can read more about this, if you can read German, in this Spiegel article and on the pages it links to.)
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V S Naipaul

Last year, reading around a bit to try to come to grips with Islamic terrorism, and the mindset that drives it, I read Beyond Belief: Islamic Excursions Among the Converted Peoples. Published in 1998, it’s a bit of a seqel to Among the Believers, which was written in the wake of Iran’s revolution of 1979 and published in 1981. My copy of Beyond Belief is dog-eared and underlined, marked up by the kind of active reading I did in grad school, but haven’t done much of since then. A lot of what Naipaul had to say made sense to me. His psychological explanations seemed to open a window into a subject that had been closed to me: not just terrorists and killers, but the people who support them, who venerate them.

Then I read around a bit more and found that Naipaul was regarded as cranky, a dilettante, and that most academic of putdowns – a travel writer. So mentally, I moved his insights into a different column. Anecdotal, interesting, not comprehensive or systematic. That’s part of the reason I haven’t blogged about him before.

A couple of weeks back, I picked up a different Naipaul book, A Turn in the South. The South, as in the southern United States, Dixie, the old Confederacy, and not incidentally my native region. Territory as treacherous and contentious as any in Islam. Layers of history, violence, war, slavery, occupation, poverty, and migration. And deep religiosity. Naipaul wanted to explain – or at least illuminate – the history of the South, both black and white. A tall order.

He starts in Atlanta, a city I knew well, and where I lived for three years in the period immediately after the time that Naipaul did his interviews there. Throughout the book, he talks to people I have either known at one remove, or might well have known. In the first chapter, he stays at the Ritz downtown, which I thought a funny place to get to know the real South, which to me is rural, agricultural at heart, and can only be understood by building on that base. Turns out he was making a metaphoric point about new money in Atlanta, how the city had grown and changed from its origins. Compare that with the only other lodging he mentions, the Ramada Inn in Jackson, Mississippi, a personality-free chain hotel on a highway. Says something about Jackson, too.

Naipaul gets an enormous amount right. I think he does better on the white than on the black, but coming as close as he does is a substantial achievement. He’s up front about his limitations, too.

“Music and community, and tears and faith: I felt that I had been taken, through country music, to an understanding of a whole distinctive culture, something I had never imagined existing in the United States.”

I don’t know why he never imagined a whole distinctive culture existing in the US, but I’m glad that he could overcome that prejudice, and make that admission. The book also has occasional show-stopping revelations that could only come from Naipaul’s Indian, Caribbean, English melange of experiences.

“The past as a dream of purity, the past as cause for grief, the past as religion: it is the very prompting of the Shias of Islam to nobility and sacrifice, the dream of the good time of the Prophet and the first four caliphs, before greed and ambition destroyed the newly saved world. It was the very prompting of the Confederate Memorial in Columbia. And that very special Southern past, and cause, could be made pure only if it was removed from the squalor of the race issue.”

Naipaul is, in short, a very reliable guide for an outsider in very charged and difficult terrain. I not only recognized my native land in his description, I learned about it as well. I hope to write more here of his take on Islam – for Europe faces few challenges greater than understanding and coming to terms with contempoary Islam – and I think Naipaul’s two books are not a bad place to start.


Reuters points out that owning a single share of Eurodisney, the long time ill-fated European branch of Disney, may have been one of the best investments in recent European economic history. Shareholders attending last Thursday’s annual meeting were rewarded with two tickets, a Lion-King toy, and a restaurant voucher. Just the tickets, currently priced at ? 98, represent a yield of about 21800 % for a single share, which was priced at ? 0.45 on the same day.

Siemens Follow-up

Just a quick follow up to my recent post on German outsourcing. I fear the issue rather got lost in an interesting, if secondary, topic in the comments section. One reader was, however kind enought to draw this article to my attention.

The German firm Siemens will move most of the 15,000 software programming jobs from its offices in the United States and Western Europe to India, China and Eastern Europe, a company official said Monday.

“Siemens has recognized that a huge amount of software development activity needs to be moved from high-cost countries to low-cost countries,” said Anil R. Laud, managing director of Siemens Information Systems, the group’s information technology subsidiary in India.
Source: SignonSanDiego.Com

Now this dates from mid February so it would appear that there was fire to the smoke, even if it may have expediently been extinguished. I repeat: this reality is inevitably going to arrive on our doorstep and we would do better have some more informed public discussion over some of the implications. In this regard I would again draw attention to one comment of Jean-Claude Trichet in the interview I cited yesterday.

there is the unfortunate phenomenon that public opinion very often discovers the problems at the moment they are tackled, when governments, parliaments and social partners carry out the structural reforms that are urgently needed. This late and brutal discovery could have a negative impact on confidence. Had the public been more aware of the underlying problems, the reforms, when decided upon and implemented, would have increased confidence. That is the reason why we believe that transparency, pedagogy and tireless explanations are an essential part of preparing structural reforms.

We have only recently seen in the Spanish context one way a public which felt it may have been kept systematically misinformed by its government can react. We would do well to learn from this. Globalisation is here, it is more potent than ever, and it won’t simply go away just because we choose to ignore it. I may have cause to disagree with Trichet about precisely which structural reforms I would like to see assertively advanced, but the point he is making is absolutely valid. Be warned.

Economic Consequences of Spain’s 11M

Italian consumer confidence has remained near a 10-year low in March in the wake of the Madrid terrorist bombings. In fact the bombings may have hurt sentiment in Italy more than the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. according to a statement from the government-funded Isae institute. The confidence survey, which was carried out between March 1 and March 12, showed that consumers who had been growing more optimistic about the prospects for lower inflation and improvements in unemployment turned pessimistic in the two days after the bombings. In fact while the 22-year-old Italian consumer confidence index touched its all time record low of 93.7 in April 1993, March was the third month in a row that the index has been below 102, the last time it was that low being in February 1994.
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Outsourcing Debate Hits Germany

Well, well, this was hardly unexpected. In fact the reality may well be that this time there is plenty of smoke but no fire, since Siemens has announced it has no concrete plans to move 10,000 jobs abroad. Indeed much of the noise at present may emanate from a threat to move as a negotiating posture in order to try and force changes. But behind this the underlying reality is that the problem is coming. Not only is Germany having a ‘job-loss’ recovery there is good reason to doubt whether it is having a recovery at all. And of course the main course may well be yet to be served since many of the jobs threatening to relocate seem to be in the industrial sector, whilst just round the corner the high-end services issue is surely coming. Still there is one difference with the US: the headlines are not being made by an opposition candidate talking about Benedict Arnold CEO’s, but by a Chamber of Commerce head who seems to be saying he’s Benedict Arnold and proud of it.
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Our deaf, schizophrenic uncle S.

William Pfaff, a writer who wrote about European-American relations and the challenges of perceived unchallenged US global leadership well before the Iraq induced and war-blogged “transatlantic rift”, may have indeed listened to Carly Simon when he wrote his not too favorable review of Zbigniew Brzezinski’s election year foreign policy summary “The Choice: Global Domination or Global Leadership” for the latest issue of the New York Review of Books.

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