Thursday, April 8, 2010


Pot growers in Humboldt County who want to keep pot illegal. Way to fight for the cause, guys.

Interesting news that’s been ignored today: about half of all Americans don’t pay any income tax. Good or bad? One thing this analysis ignores is all the taxes we pay that we don’t think about: various sales taxes, state taxes, property taxes, payroll taxes—the net effect is that the tax regime doesn’t look so progressive after all. Tax reform is yet another area where reform is desperately needed.

A profile of a South African demagogue is fairly alarming:
I shared a dinner table in a ballroom at the Michelangelo Hotel in Johannesburg last week with several black middle-class South Africans including a lawyer, a marketing executive, a political consultant and a public relations specialist. The conversation was varied and jovial, but weighted with the dread that Zimbabwe's ruined economy and bloodsoaked politics might be a glimpse of South Africa's own future.

This came from a sense that Malema is in fact on to something, giving a voice to the millions of black South Africans who feel cheated by the promise of multiracial democracy. What's the point of voting if you're poor, he asks, arguing that the political revolution of 1994 must now be followed by an economic one.

One guest said: "I went into a toilet and saw some graffiti on a wall. I've never forgotten it. It said: 'Blacks have Nelson Mandela so they think they're free. Pathetic race.'"
Another remarked: "I have a Zimbabwean friend. He says, 'At least we're trying. It was always going to be painful but we're getting there. Look at your townships. You South Africans haven't even started.'"

The sentiment is borne of frustration that South Africa's black economic empowerment programme has gone awry, creating a few bling millionaires but leaving the majority behind. One diner observed that the only way to get rich is to be white or a crony of the ascendant faction within the ANC.

There’s a drought in southwestern China, and both the Guardian and New York Times are on the case. Here’s the Guardian’s arresting first few lines:
It is hard to imagine a less fitting environment for a mollusc than the arid plain of Damoguzhen in south-west China.

There is not a drop of water in sight. The baked and fissured earth resembles an ancient desert. Yet shellfish are scattered here in their thousands; all so recently perished that shriveled, blackened bodies are still visible inside cracked, opened shells.
As it turns out, China is turning to the same weather-manipulation efforts it used during the Olympics to stimulate rainfall. This is somewhat worrying, since massive government efforts were response for the problem in the first place (from the Times):

Meeting in Thailand last week, China’s southern neighbors sharply questioned whether the drought’s effect on the Mekong River — at its lowest in a half-century — had been worsened by dams along its upper reaches, known as the Lancang, in western Yunnan.

The hydroelectric dams store water that otherwise would flow naturally in wet and dry seasons. The Chinese deny the charge and say that they released dammed water during this dry season to raise the Mekong’s level.

Environmentalists have raised other questions in the drought’s wake. Wang Yongchen, the senior environmental writer for China National Radio, asked in a March journal article in Beijing whether the reservoirs and rapid industrialization had permanently changed the climate in Yunnan. She said that the wholesale replacement of Yunnan’s forests with plantations — especially thirsty rubber and eucalyptus trees — may have lowered the region’s water table, dried the atmosphere and worsened water shortages.

A blunt editorial last week in The South China Morning Post said that China, which has more than a fifth of the world’s population but only 7 percent of its fresh water, had mismanaged its vast system of 87,000 reservoirs, 43 percent of which it said were in poor condition.

Meanwhile, here’s a critical FT editorial on China’s business environment:

In the 10 years since the establishment of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China, I have seldom seen market sentiment among members so bleak or pessimistic. After 30 years of progressive market reforms, many foreign businesses in the country feel as though they have run up against an unexpected and impregnable blockade.

Suddenly political developments and regulatory restrictions have converged to create a dangerous cocktail that, for many companies, smacks of protectionism. While in some sectors – financial services and retail, for example – the doors to the Chinese market open ever wider, in many industries frustration among foreign businesses is far higher than Beijing realises.

Another book to add to my infinitely-long reading list: on Napoleon’s campaigns in Russia.

Will the iPad revolutionize health care? The article makes a convincing case that there are some nice applications (looking at scans, comparing readouts, entering data), but a lot of its use depends on complementary technologies being developed: i.e. electronic medical records. Also on the health care technology front, the FDA is tightening rules on radiation, especially linear accelerators, which you may recognize from this heartbreaking series from earlier in the year in the New York Times. When it comes to health care and technology, more is not always better: using better is the only better (do you like the tautology?)

The coming European debt crisis. More debt woes: Japan and Greece.

Innovation in cities: the benefits of agglomeration in ideas “dissipate very quickly with distance and are gone by 750 metres.”

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