Archive for the ‘Miscellaneous’ Category


Russia’s drinking problem a population threat?

April 11, 2009

An interesting piece in World Affairs Journal:

How many Russians are actually drinkers, and how heavily do they actually drink? Officially, Russia classifies some 7 million out of roughly 120 million persons over 15 years of age, or roughly 6 percent of its adult population, as heavy drinkers. But the numbers are surely higher than this. According to data compiled by the World Health Organization, as of 2003 Russia was Europe’s heaviest per capita spirits consumer; its reported hard liquor consumption was over four times as high as Portugal’s, three times that of Germany or Spain, and over two and a half times higher than that of France.

Yet even these numbers may substantially understate hard spirit use in Russia, since the WHO figures follow only the retail sale of hard liquor. But samogon—home-brew, or “moonshine”—is, according to some Russian researchers, a huge component of the country’s overall intake. Professor Alexander Nemstov, perhaps Russia’s leading specialist in this area, argues that Russia’s adult population—women as well as men—puts down the equivalent of a bottle of vodka per week.

From the epidemiological standpoint, local-level studies have offered fairly chilling proof that alcohol is a direct factor in premature mortality. One forensic investigation of blood alcohol content by a medical examiner’s office in a city in the Urals, for example, indicated that over 40 percent of the younger male decedents evaluated had probably been alcohol-impaired or severely intoxicated at the time of death—including one quarter of the deaths from heart disease and over half of those from accidents or injuries. But medical and epidemiological studies have also demonstrated that, in addition to its many deaths from consumption of ordinary alcohol, Russia also suffers a grisly toll from alcohol poisoning, as the country’s drinkers, in their desperate quest for intoxication, down not only sometimes severely impure samogon, but also perfumes, alcohol-based medicines, cleaning solutions, and other deadly liquids. Death rates from such alcohol poisoning appear to be at least one hundred times higher in Russia than the United States—this despite the fact that the retail price in Russia today is lower for a liter of vodka than a liter of milk.


UK report assesses national drug policy

April 7, 2009

While the drug-policy discussion has been limited in the US, the volume has increased over the past couple of weeks. A few weeks ago, President Obama made a flippant comment when replying to a reporter’s question as to whether the legalization of marijuana in some states might bring in much needed revenue. But the press came back at Robert Gibbs, Obama’s White House press secretary, with similar questions, and it was clear that they were somewhat embarassed by their lack of preparation on the issue.

It was this question that rendered Gibbs tongue-tied: “When the president said he doesn’t think that legalizing marijuana would give the economy a boost, was he giving a political answer or an economic answer? Does he have numbers to back (his position) up?”

Today there’s a note-worthy piece in the Guardian about how such a move might benefit Great Britain:

For many years the government has been under pressure to conduct an objective cost-benefit analysis of the current drugs policy, but has failed to do so despite calls from MPs. Now the drugs reform charity, Transform, has commissioned its own report, examining all aspects of prohibition from the costs of policing and investigating drugs users and dealers to processing them through the courts and their eventual incarceration.

As well as such savings is the likely taxation revenue in a regulated market. However, there are also the potential costs of increased drug treatment, education and public information campaigns about the risks and dangers of drugs, similar to those for tobacco and alcohol, and the costs of running a regulated system.

The report looked at four potential scenarios, ranging from no increase in drugs use to a 100% rise as they become more readily available.

“The conclusion is that regulating the drugs market is a dramatically more cost-effective policy than prohibition and that moving from prohibition to regulated drugs markets in England and Wales would provide a net saving to taxpayers, victims of crime, communities, the criminal justice system and drug users of somewhere within the range of, for the four scenarios, £13.9bn, £10.8bn, £7.7bn, £4.6bn.”

As an aside, one can tell from this piece why The Guardian has long been ridiculed as The Grauniad. As you can read in the first paragraph, this sentence: “Now the drugs reform charity, Transform, has commissioned its own report …” might be confusing without morning coffee, something a hyphen would help tremendously, as in the “drugs-reform charity.” If you’re interested in the whole piece, go here.


Taiwan discovers fake Chinese pandas

April 1, 2009

pandas1An alarming story from my former employers details what happened at the Taipei Zoo when crowds realized the pandas China sent last December were actually painted Wenzhou brown forest bears:

The Taipei Zoo’s head of ursidae ex-procyonidae care, Connie Liu (劉長春), said she became suspicious when the pandas, Tuan Tuan (團團) and Yuan Yuan (圓圓), began to spend almost all of their waking hours having sex. Pandas are notorious for their low libidos, which make them difficult to breed in captivity.

“Let’s just say Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan would tuan yuan at every chance,” said Liu, referring to the combination of the panda’s names, which means “to reunite” in Mandarin. “They would do it doggy-style and every armchair zoologist knows that pandas favor the missionary position — when they do it at all. Their behavior caused chaos. Children screamed and parents became irate.”

Her suspicions were confirmed yesterday when she noticed that the animals’ new hair growth was discolored.

“Their roots began to show,” she said.

A zookeeper who asked to be identified only by his nickname A-diung (阿忠) because he was not authorized to speak with the media said he and his coworkers had long had their doubts, but were discouraged from publicly voicing their concerns by management.

“Whenever the moaning from the panda enclosure gets too loud we gotta go in there and hose ’em down with cold water,” he said. “After a while, parts of the animals’ black-and-white patches started to turn brown.”

He said he alerted senior zoo staff who dismissed his concerns.

The story has received wider attention from the international press. Here’s more.

UPDATE: James Fallows of the Atlantic was pleased with the story as well.


How crippling is foreign aid to Africa?

March 23, 2009

In last week’s Wall Street Journal, there’s a provoking essay by Dambisa Moyo, a former Goldman Sachs economist, on whether aid to sub-Saharan countries is productive in the long run. At first the piece’s assertion seems counterintuitive, but the argument—that aid enables autocratic regimes to maintain their hold on power and provides little incentive for economic initiative—isn’t entirely new.

One thing about the article I found lacking was the absence of details on the extent to which aid is tied to loans, or even what percentage of aid is in fact not aid at all, but loans under a different name. Moyo takes a stab at it with this:

Whatever its strengths and weaknesses, such charity-based aid is relatively small beer when compared to the sea of money that floods Africa each year in government-to-government aid or aid from large development institutions such as the World Bank.

Over the past 60 years at least $1 trillion of development-related aid has been transferred from rich countries to Africa. Yet real per-capita income today is lower than it was in the 1970s, and more than 50% of the population — over 350 million people — live on less than a dollar a day, a figure that has nearly doubled in two decades.

Even after the very aggressive debt-relief campaigns in the 1990s, African countries still pay close to $20 billion in debt repayments per annum, a stark reminder that aid is not free. In order to keep the system going, debt is repaid at the expense of African education and health care. Well-meaning calls to cancel debt mean little when the cancellation is met with the fresh infusion of aid, and the vicious cycle starts up once again.

It would be intellectually lazy to assess Moyo’s ideas with a shoot-the-messenger approach. Some governmental improvements Moyo touts as integral to reform are issuing bonds, participating more actively in capital markets, and attracting foreign investment by altering tax structures and streamlining bureaucracy.  

Whether this is the most effective route to weaning African governments off their dependence on aid is debatable, but doesn’t detract from the overall argument that by perpetuating never-ending monetary infusions, Western governments, NGOs, and their advocates become complicit in limiting the potential of much of sub-Saharan Africa and its peoples.


Sunday items

March 22, 2009

Two things on Israel and Gaza: First from The New York Times, a soldier’s account of the military’s attitude toward killing civilians, and, from The Guardian, a follow-up piece on a group that’s interviewed a number of Israeli soldiers.

A piece on The Democratic Republic of Congo and a photography exhibit on the women of Congo.

For those of you who missed it, here’s AP on Iran’s response to Obama’s holiday message.

And finally a Wall Street Journal piece on the man who could take Karzai’s place in Afghanistan.


Death of Newspapers?

March 17, 2009

newspapers31As I noted in an earlier post the disappearance of newspapers often means corruption increases. What wasn’t addressed in that post is the grand kibbitz going on now: What did the newspapers in?

Conventional wisdom has the Internet as its culprit, but that’s simplistic and naive. Long before the Internet was making inroads into the newspapers’ market share, newspaper owners got giddy over who could cut costs faster. If you have a chance to speak with a Vietnam-era foreign correspondent, ask them about well-staffed foreign bureaus, per diem pay, and corporate accounts. I’m not saying those journalists were living large, but what passes for a foreign bureau now is risible compared with its predecessor.

And it wasn’t only foreign bureaus. After the glory days of American investigative journalism, newspapers began cutting their investigative staff as well, and in a race to see who could garner the largest quarterly profits, newspaper owners cut time and again, and now they’re gobsmacked that nothing’s left.

Any newspaper in the country that depends on wire services for stories on New York and D.C., but just laid off its local sports reporter is a paper destined to fail. Just as all politics is local, in the end, all news is as well.  As tiring as it is to see so many blaming technology, it’s nice that there’s at least one industry insider who gets it. I suspect there are many, many more who decided to stay silent trying to preserve their positions.

But here’s a taste of what columnist Bill Virgin has to say on the last day of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. While I disagree with his contention of how newspapers drove away conservatives, the bulk of his argument is sound:

 … Or at least newspapers did until they began lopping away content and features readers had come to expect. The rationale the industry used was that readers could and would get that information elsewhere, especially online, so why waste valuable print real estate on them? But the message readers got from the newspapers was they ought to go elsewhere for TV listings, stock quotes and the like. Surprisingly enough, readers took the advice and did.


Until now. In business there is a phenomenon known as the death spiral, in which the measures intended to rescue a company or industry not only fail to stem the losses, they actually accelerate the decline. In the case of newspapers, the loss of readers and advertisers led to cuts in content and features and greater irrelevancy, which led to more lost readers and advertisers, which led to still more cuts, which led to …

As he says, where we are today.


Some items

March 14, 2009
  • Pro Publica is blogging the stimulus. How cool is that?
  • Still no word on the  journalist imprisoned in Iran.
  • Greenwald on Portugal’s drug decriminialization program.