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Archive for November, 2008

Rampaging Japanese seniors

There have been a number of stories lately about the criminal proclivities of Japan’s senior citizens.  On the northern island of Hokkaido, arrests of seniors actually outnumbered arrests of teenagers in 2006.  Since then, the number of elder arrests has risen to three for every two bookings of teens.  Nationally, crimes by seniors have risen fivefold over a 20-year period.  This has occurred concurrent to an overall drop in the crime rate: In 2007, elderly crimes rose 4.2 percent while the overall arrest rate dropped almost 5 percent.

Most of this is petty crime, primarily theft of food and non-alcoholic drinks.  Violent crime remains rare, although it has increased.  Shoplifting accounts for more than half of theft arrests of men and 90 percent of thefts by women.

Increased poverty somewhat explains the trend, as the Washington Post reports:

“A government survey of 137 elderly shoplifters in Tokyo found that a desire to “cut back on spending” was a primary motivation of 59 percent of the women arrested. Two-thirds of men said they stole because of their tough financial situation.”

However, Justice Ministry officials report that only 7 percent of the thieves qualified for state welfare payments.  Most received varying levels of pensions.  Fear of poverty appears to be a stronger motive than any actual need to steal for subsistence.  Many seniors are worried following a spectacular scandal in which the government lost over 50 million peoples’ pension files.  This grand-scale fuck-up, combined with the overall declining economy, has many seniors worried about their long-term financial health.

There are cultural and sociological causes as well.  Japanese society’s traditional reverence for the elderly has faded with modernity.  Seniors increasingly live alone, rather than with their children or grandchildren.  One Hokkaido police official summarizes:

“They are not in touch with their children and have no connection with their brothers and sisters,” Shibata said. “These are people who worked so hard for so many years for their companies and for their country. All of a sudden, all their work has come to nothing. They have empty time on their hands.”

Many are driven by a desire for human contact or excitement, and those caught are often eager and happy to talk to police.  Dislocation from society, as well as simple boredom, are as powerful causes as economic need:

“Here in Sapporo, police in September arrested a 71-year-old retired man in a grocery store after he tried to steal 14 items, including ice cream, worth $27. He told police that he often shoplifts.

The man receives a social welfare check for about $1,600 a month and lives with his wife, who is ill and unable to do housework. He told police that his wife’s illness caused him stress but that when he steals, he feels “refreshed.”

At the time of his arrest, he had $7,500 in cash in his pocket.”

Very few of these elder criminals receive prison sentences. However, the Japanese government is currently spending approximately $60 million to construct three new prison wards specialized to house senior citizens.  Unfortunately, Japan lacks an infrastructure of organizations capable of coping with the psychological needs of its aging population.  Public awareness campaigns about shoplifting have met resistance from store owners, who hesitate to put up anti-shoplifting posters for fear of offending loyal customers.  The long-term solution, for a population that is only getting older, will have to include improved socialization programs for seniors without children or grandchildren.  Whether community centers, counceling programs, or manga Marxism, Japan needs to find something more than robots to keep its seniors off the streets.

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Johnson, Buchanan, Ford.  These are Presidential names.  Not so much “Obama.”  Database searches suggest there are less than 20 Obama families in the United States, compared to more than 10,000 Clintons and 60,000 Bushes.  The election has granted this handful of mini-celebrities a new set of privileges:

Nicanor Obama began to realize he might be on to a good thing when he didn’t get a speeding ticket not long ago. After stopping the 28-year-old for a little lead-footing near the Verizon Center, a District police officer looked at his driver’s license and put the citation book away.

“He said, ‘Well, I’m going to let you go because you have the Obama name’ ” is how the Arlington County resident recalled the encounter.

The rarity of the name means that people are asking non-Presidential Obamas for inauguration tickets.  No, they aren’t all related.  The name is actually more common in west Africa, Equatorial Guinea in particular, than in Barack’s father’s native Kenya.  The country’s recent Prime Minister shares his name with the President-elect, as does this random Equatoguinean The Guardian dug up.

There’s also Obama, Japan, a lucky little town of 30,000 with a song and everything.  Susie Obama, a Florida real estate investor, gets emails from confused Japanese greeting the new first lady.  It’s about time Susie got some love, as she explains:

“I’m so glad Obama is finally a good guy. I really had a hard time for a while there with Osama.”

You’re not alone, Susie.  You’re not alone.

*We’re going to be a little slow for the holiday.  Bear with us and we’ll pick the content up again soon.  Thanks, loyal reader (s?)

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The New York Post reports on George and Laura’s White House Hanukkah invitations:

“The message reads that the couple “requests the pleasure of your company at a Hanukkah reception,” written beneath an image of a Clydesdale horse hauling a Christmas fir along the snow-dappled drive to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.”

No fuckin way.  They can’t be that stupid.

Yes.  Yes they are.

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Justin Fox over at Time offers up a comparison between the failures of Wall Street and Detroit:

“Imagine there was this industry–Industry A–that had been flying high for years. It benefited from major regulatory shifts, and changes in the tax code. Its employees were the highest paid of any industry. Then it landed in a crisis entirely of its own making. It had been manufacturing defective products and selling them around the world. Buying them all back would have bankrupted the industry, so it asked Congress for help. Industry A got $700 billion, to be administered by a Treasury Secretary who was the former CEO of one of the industry’s leading firms. He soon began handing out the money at generous terms, with very few restrictions.”

versus…

“Imagine there was this other industry–Industry B–that had been struggling for a while. Some of its problems were of its own making, but government policies played a significant role in its decline. Its employees, while still paid better than their peers in similar industries, had given up perks and pay, and their ranks had been decimated. Then Industry B landed in a crisis that was mostly the making of Industry A. It asked Congress for $25 billion to tide it over. Members of Congress criticized its leaders sharply, and told them not to come back until they had a detailed plan for how they would spend the money and how they would pay it back.”

Much of the political class, Fox included, supports bailout funding for some or all sectors of the first group – the financial industry.  Republicans and Democrats alike are finding billions, with no strings attached.  The auto bailout, however, has been pilloried with execs taunted for their use of private jets while Congress drops all manner of conditions on them.  Why?

Fox argues that banks are critical to all sectors of the economy, as well as explaining that banks are suceptible to panics so that a bad one failing can cause good ones to fail as well.  He also suggests a public perception problem:

“Most Americans simply no longer identify with the domestic auto industry (or with the states of Michigan and Ohio). To the Southerners who now make up the core constituency of the Republican Party, it’s a bunch of coddled, unionized workers trying to get handouts that the South’s auto industry (Toyota, Hyundai, Nissan, Mercedes, BMW …) doesn’t need. To the coastal urbanites and suburbanites who now make up the core constituency of the Democratic Party, it’s an industry that makes crappy big cars and fights against higher fuel efficiency standards. And to the business press it’s the worst thing of all: a trio of companies that are neither exciting nor financially successful.”

Bailout opponents, particularly union-bashing Republicans, have pitched outright lies about the industry.  Auto workers don’t make $70 an hour, but who will defend them?  The business press hates unions, the Democrats aren’t particularly committed to Detroit’s business model, and the clout of various Michigan politicians is fading fast.

In contrast, the financial industry provides its own “impartial” experts.  Whether on Bush or Obama’s team, all the Very Serious People with the Very Serious Solutions are the same ones who tanked these institutions in the first place.  Robert Rubin?  Citigroup.  Henry Paulson?  Goldman Sachs.  Laura Tyson?  Morgan Stanley.  William Daley?  JP Morgan Chase.  This is not a condemnation of Obama, nor Bush for that matter.  It’s simply the way that finance is handled as a combined political and economic issue.  The same people who drive the car into the ditch are presented as the only ones capable of driving it out; the theory being that, well, at least we’re sure they know how to drive.  Enabling this, the press has presented the financial crisis in the passive voice.  Dean Baker explains:

“Let’s imagine that the economy in Venezuela gets really bad in the next few years. Will the Post write about how Hugo Chavez had to cope with enormous economic turmoil?

That’s unlikely. The Post would most likely be running articles that tell readers how Chavez’s policies led to an economic disaster.

But, a different standard is applied to our economic chieftains who pursue policies that the Post endorses. The first part of a two-part profile of Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson’s actions in the crisis is headlined “A Conversion in ‘This Storm.'” The headline implies that the economic crisis is something that came out of the blue as opposed to being an entirely predictable result of the economic policies pursued by Paulson and his predecessors.

The point is extremely simple. There was a huge housing bubble that should have been visible to any competent economic analyst. The bubble was fueled by an enormous chain of highly leveraged finance. (As head of Goldman Sachs, Mr. Paulson personally made hundreds of millions of dollars from this bubble.)

It was entirely predictable that the housing bubble would burst and that its collapse would have a huge impact on the financial system and the economy as a whole. There is zero excuse for Paulson being caught by surprise by a “storm” that he helped create. The Post should not be in the business of covering up for Paulson’s massive failure.”

The narrative on the auto industry is that it failed because of poor choices by management and labor.  The narrative on the financial industries, however, is that it just sorta happened.  No one would dream of asking the CEO of GM (let alone the head of the UAW) to design the plan for a Detroit bailout, and yet that’s exactly what the entire political class does when they anoint the various de-regulators and speculators as managers of trillions more taxpayer dollars.

There isn’t an easy solution for either crisis.  I would, at least, suggest that we listen a bit more to people like James Galbraith, Paul Krugman and Nourial Roubini and a little less to Rubin and his acolytes even as they pander to the new orthodoxy.  Then again, it’s probably too much to ask that politically influential people be judged on performance.  Trix and accountability are for kids.

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The Obama effect

For months we heard rumours that Obama was some kind of closet Panther, hiding his afro pick while plotting revolution.  Starting around 11 PM on November 4, the same people who made these claims suddenly decided he was actually a center-rightist, that his victory reflected America’s inherant conservatism.

Obviously, this put actual black nationalists in a weird spot. Today’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution featured a piece by Muhammad Yungai, a Decatur, Georgia artist and self-identified member of this group:

“As a black nationalist I have considered myself an American only as a technicality or an accident of birth. I’ve never hoisted the red, white and blue, only the red, black and green. I gave up on the American dream a longtime ago. I have worked and looked forward to autonomy and self-determination in our communities. I never imagined that I would live long enough to see an African-American president. I never even believed that I would live to see a black Miss America. But America fooled me! Even as I predicted an Obama nomination and then a presidential win, the reality of what happened on Nov. 4 still has me totally stunned.”

Yungai, whose excellant website is as aesthetically threatening as a puppy wrapped in a blanket, goes on to express his optimism at this development:

“And now we have a President Obama! The mold has been irrevocably broken! The possibilities of opportunity in American life have been exponentially expanded.”

The ongoing structural inequalities in American socioecomics keep Yungai appropriately skeptical.  However, he describes the election as “psyche-shattering” and, as per the title, is “revisiting [his] stance.”

The article is here.  The cynic notes of course that the Journal-Constitution would never have run this piece of Yungai had attacked Obama as a race-traitor; it’s much more palatable as an inspiring conversion to Americanism.  That said, it’s a notably unique perspective.  I will paypal $2 to any commenter who can find another mainstream editorial featuring the phrase: “As a black nationalist…”  So good on Yungai and the Journal-Constitution for expanding the discourse on the op-ed page beyond the usual suspects.

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Romanian legislative elections take place a week from today.  We’ve dealt with this before, so stop looking so surprised.  Our last post summarized the main parties, candidates, and early polling, so it’s time to turn to the clusterfuck details of what promises to be a messy outcome.

Following the collapse of communism, Romanians elected their MPs through a closed party list system.  Voters selected their party preference, and seats were subsequently distributed based on percentages.  There was a 5% threshold for parliamentary representation, with set-aside exceptions in the Chamber of Deputies (the lower house) for ethnic minorities.

Electoral reforms in spring 2008 replaced this system with what are more or less single-member districts.  Romania’s 42 judets (counties) were cut up into electoral units at both the Chamber and Senate levels.  Anyone who wins his district with an absolute majority gets in.  This reform had significant backing from NGOs, who believed that tying MPs to districts would improve their accountability and help shift their sense of responsibility to their constituents rather than their parties.

This being Romania, there’s more and it’s bad.  The IFES Election Guide explains:

“The seats in districts where no candidate wins an absolute majority of votes are then distributed to parties proportionally. To gain representation in the Senate, a party must win at least 5% of the national popular vote or win an absolute majority in at least 3 single-seat districts…To gain representation in the Chamber of Deputies, a party must win at least 5% of the national popular vote or win an absolute majority in at least 6 single-seat districts.”

So the question:  “distributed to parties proportionally” to what? Proportional to total national vote?  Not quite.  Professor Alan Renwick, who gets paid to understand this stuff, tries to clarify the distribution of the non-majority seats:

“Besides the single-member district outright winners, a party’s seats are allocated to candidates in decreasing order of the ratio between the absolute number of votes they received and the quota in the county where they ran. However, the seat allocation mechanism assures that every SMD is assigned a representative who actually ran for election in that district, and this goal is consistently prioritized over rewarding the highest vote getters.”

In case that didn’t help, a similarly nonsensical explanation cribbed from Dr. Sean:

(i) in the first stage it is calculated how many seats go to each party in each electoral district; from this you subtract (if there are any) those seats obtained directly by the parties in that particular county through winning a SMD by a qualified majority.

(ii) then at the level of each district they draw up a ‘party list’ which will contain all the candidates of the respective party in the descending order of the votes obtained.

(iii) At the district level, seats are distributed to the better positioned candidates of those parties entitled to seats, but only function of the electoral quota they obtained.

(iv) It is possible that after this stage not all seats will have been distributed. Those undistributed are redistributed, function of the percentage obtained at the national level by the parties, to the best rated candidates in their parties in the respective counties.

Ground control to Major Tom? A total lack of information in English has left non-Romanian scholars grasping at straws.  Romanians I’ve spoken to are equally clueless as to how this will actually be implemented once the votes have been counted.

It will be especially difficult to sort out districts with significant ethnic minorities.  The Hungarian party UDMR generally checks in at 6% of the national vote, giving them a powerful bloc of MPs willing to serve in any governing coalition that makes appropriate concessions to their group interests.  A new Hungarian party, the Hungarian Civic Alliance, now threatens to peel off 1-2% from UDMR, potentially dragging both down under the 5% threshold for parliamentary representation.  In the past, this had a simple outcome: neither party would be represented, apart from the one ethnic Hungarian set-aside seat going to whichever of them received more votes.

The new system is chaos in Kolozsvár.  What happens in a Chamber district where a Hungarian, Roma, or German candidate wins 50% of the vote but his party fails to meet the 5% threshold nationally?  Would the candidate be replaced by a losing candidate from a mainstream party?  Previously, winning 6% of the vote meant winning 6% of the national seats.  The new system’s impact on minorities will not be known until after the election.  The Hungarians are concentrated in very few places, with 98% of them living within three of the country’s eight regions.  Roma, on the other hand, are spread more evenly; the three regions with the largest Roma populations cover barely 50% of the group’s total numbers.  Summary of the situation:

(Unknown minority distribution within the new single-member districts) +

(maintenance of national-level party vote thresholds) =

(massive rubber band ball.)

The people who are supposed to oversee this have a real spiffy website that gives no useful information in any language.  The problem is, a huge number of these districts may have to be distributed based on that nonsensical proportional system.  If we held elections in America under these rules, most of the seats would simply go to Democrats and Republicans.  Only a handful would require proportional distribution in places where Greens, Libertarians, or independents held the winner below 50%.  However, Romania is a three-party system, and also has a strong Hungarian party and a weaker Roma one capable of peeling off decent numbers of votes in particular districts.

Because there is no district-level public polling, we simply don’t know whether 10%, 30%, or 70% of the seats will need to be distributed using the proportional method.  The ratio of seats to actual national votes could be significantly skewed.  The districts were drawn by the Social Democratic Party (PSD) and National Liberal (PNL)-dominated parliament, so presumably they will advantage those parties at the cost of the Democratic Liberal Party (PDL).  That said, it’s still all guesswork.

Certainly, the reformed electoral code has changed the nature of campaigning.  One person I spoke with said candidates are “all running for Mayor.”  Thanks to the new single-member districts, local issues have supplanted debates over national policy.  Additionally, parties searching for strong individual candidates have nominated a number of celebrities including Gymnastics icon Bela Karolyi for UDMR (“DAHR” is UDMR); former Presidential Councelor and national starlet Elena Udrea for PDL; and Eurovision bronze medalist Luminita Anghel for PSD.   Finally, the new system will mean a shift away from party money towards personal financing of campaigns.  This will likely reduce the number of women MPs, the striking Ms. Udrea notwithstanding.

The election is scheduled for a Sunday before a national holiday, which could drive down turnout.  Autumn polling shows PSD, now allied with the small Conservative Party (PC), closing a gap on PDL for the lead:

Polling Firm Date Source PDL PSD PNL PNG UDMR PRM PC PNTCD PIN PCM Undecided
IMAS 26/06/2008 [4] 40% 26% 18% 5% 5% 3% N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
INSOMAR 22-30/07/2008 [5] 38% 26% 16% 3% 4% 3% 2% 2% 2% 1% N/A
ATLE 25-05/08-09/2008 [6] 30.2% 33.1% 16% 3.2% 4.8% 3.4% 3.1% 1.1% 2% N/A N/A
Metro-Media 1-16/09/2008 [7] 37% 28% 17% 3% 5% 5% 3% 1% 3% N/A N/A
INSOMAR 12-17/09/2008 [8] 39% 25% 20% 3% 4% 4% 1% N/A N/A 1% N/A
Polling Firm Date Source PDL PSDPC PNL PNG UDMR PRM PNTCD PIN PCM Undecided
CCSB 22-25/09/2008 [9] 34% 36% 20% 2% 5% 3% 1% N/A N/A N/A
CURS 10-23/10/2008 [10] 32% 31% 18% 5% 5% 5% 1% 1% N/A N/A
CCSB 25-27/10/2008 [11] 34% 37% 18% 2% 6% 3% N/A N/A N/A N/A
INSOMAR 30-03/10-11/2008 [12] 37% 32% 17% 3% 6% 5% N/A N/A N/A N/A
CCSB 11/11/2008 [13] 34.5% 37.7% 14.4% 2.3% 6.6% 4.0% N/A N/A N/A N/A
CBS 10-14/11/2008 [14] 34.4% 31.8% 19.9% 1.9% 5.1% 3.6% N/A N/A N/A 25.5

(If you think the Romanian political party system has anything to do with the traditional left-right cleavage, let the pre-election alliance between the Social Democrats and Conservatives disabuse you of that notion…)  Once it’s over, once there’s an actual distribution of seats, then the fun really begins.  Assume something approximating a 35%-35%-20% electoral split, with PSD and PDL coming in neck and neck with PNL trailing.  This leaves three possible combinations for forming a government:

  • PSD-PDL:  Ideological opposites.  Will not share power.
  • PDL-PNL:  PDL was built by PNL defectors.  This combination ran the country until 2006-2007 as the Justice and Truth Alliance, which fell apart amidst personality conflicts and general backstabbing.
  • PSD-PNL: These two parties have learned to more or less get along in the parliament, functioning as a check on President Basescu.  They could form a center-left coalition.

A PSD-PNL government, backed by a few extra MPs from PC and UDMR, would be led by Mircea Geoana.  This being Romania, there’s more and it’s bad.  President Basescu, PDL member and long the most popular politican in the country, gets to name the Prime Minister.  He has already suggested that neither Geoana nor PNL’s Tariceanu are acceptable.  Adrian Nastase, president of PSD’s National Council, has said that if Basescu “disregards the people’s will” then the new governing majority parties would walk out.  If that occurred, the current PNL minority government would remain in office as the lamest of ducks until new elections could be held concurrent to the Presidential balloting in 2009.

While Basescu may be blowing smoke, he does have motive to muck up the process.  His party’s popularity is largely a function of his own, and pairing legislative elections with Presidential elections would likely result in a better outcome than PDL can score on Sunday.  Hopefully, public pressure brought on by the economic crisis will compel the belligerents to settle on someone.  Presidential elections aren’t for almost a year, and the government has some big issues to address. Hopefully, we’ll know by the New Year who gets to face these challenges.

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Sometimes you read an opinion piece so incredible, so ludicrous, that you just have to spend the next 10 minutes watching Pac Man in a college library to get your head back on straight.  I’m not talking about Tom Friedman hawking his latest catchphrase, nor some dead-ender propping up an ideology.  I’m talking about monkeys throwing crap at the wall.  I’m talking about Deputy Editor Daniel Henninger’s effort in the Wall Street Journal:

“This year we celebrate the desacralized “holidays” amid what is for many unprecedented economic ruin — fortunes halved, jobs lost, homes foreclosed.  People wonder, What happened? One man’s theory: A nation whose people can’t say “Merry Christmas” is a nation capable of ruining its own economy.”

Quoi?

“One had better explain that.”

The author knows he’s spinning towards Munchkin Land, but continues by walking us through some boilerplate financial crisis narrative.  And then:

“What really went missing through the subprime mortgage years were the three Rs: responsibility, restraint and remorse. They are the ballast that stabilizes two better-known Rs from the world of free markets: risk and reward.  Responsibility and restraint are moral sentiments. Remorse is a product of conscience. None of these grow on trees. Each must be learned, taught, passed down. And so we come back to the disappearance of “Merry Christmas.”

Apparantly, the war on Christmas is over and we won.  Our wanton sacking of Christmas destroyed the strict moral code that had previously dominated the world of finance.  With Christmas left prostrate, financiers and borrowers alike devolved into a post-apocalyptic terror-sex orgy of reckless capitalistic activity.  It wasn’t deregulation, Henninger argues, nor a structural problem with a system that encouraged people to overvalue worthless paper.  The problem was, we lost our virtue.

Strangely, this only happened just now.  Not the Gordon Gecko ethics that led to the 1989 savings & loan crisis; nor the salacious profligacy of the Clinton period; nor the first seven years of Bush’s YOYO economics.  All that was well and moral so long as we had Christmas.  Tragically, something gave in September of 2008.  Henninger doesn’t explain the trigger: Was Santa lanced by a secularist Janissary?  Did Dobson surrender his credentials to Rochambeau at Yorktown?  How could the strong moral fiber of early 21st century America have folded so quickly?

“Northerners and atheists who vilify Southern evangelicals are throwing out nurturers of useful virtue with the bathwater of obnoxious political opinions.”

That explains it! The legions of Southern evangelical bankers, who built this country’s wealth on a sound moral platform, suddenly disappeared in the autumn of 2008, shifting control of the economy from Biloxi seminary students to secularist northerners.  The nomination of a not-baptized, not-born again Republican wiped out the last systemic protection of our heretofore Godly financial system.  Or something.

I have a guess at Henninger’s intentions.  He’s trying to set up Kathleen Parker and Jonah Goldberg on a blind date.  (No touching, children!)  The goal is to reconcile the God Squad with the millionaire branch of the party.  Henninger hopes that blaming secularism for the financial collapse will help redirect the increasingly vicious self-flagellation of the Republican Party towards a common enemy of those greedy, Godless northerners.  (The regionalism is a nice little touch.)  Whither Madame Rudy?

Moral failure is a hot explanation for the financial crisis.  Lefty minister Jim Wallis makes a similar case here.  It may be true that a lack of ethics contributed to the problem.  However, anyone who thinks that the down-home decency of Southern evangelicals was the glue holding the system together can please drop me an email because I’ve got this bridge for sale.  This effort to spin fact-free religious moralism into a party building exercise is one part Newt Gingrich and one part Elmer Gantry.

Yikes.

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