Tuesday, December 07, 2004


In some European countries there is much talk about the latest OECD report on the success of education, the 2004 PISA study. I looked up the original scoretables, which list the scores, error margin of the scores, and (because of the latter) the rank range of 40 countries participating in the survey; scores corresponding to four fields: maths, reading, science, problem solving.

The headline stuff is: Finland on the top, Far Eastern Asia close behind, the Netherlands, Australia, Canada, Switzerland and tiny Liechtenstein also doing fine - as usual; only big change since the 2000 survey is Poland moving up much (from the worst to the middle).

The ranking of one country in whose media there ain't much talk about the results: 28th (with error margin 25th-28th) in maths, 18th (12th-23rd) in reading, 22nd (20th-27th) in science, 29th (26th-30th) in problem solving. Yes, this was the USA.

Despite a marked decline in the quality of the school system since the end of communism (funny that...), my home country Hungary beats the USA in all but one fields: 25th (22nd-27th) in maths (and this was once the one big strength of Hungarian state education!...), 25th (24th-28th) in reading, 17th (14th-19th) in science, 20th (18th-22nd) in problem solving.

Another country whose education system I know from the inside, and which by direct comparison I can say was in most fields behind Hungary's at the time (that is: almost two decades ago) is Germany: 19th (17th-21st) in maths, 21st (15th-24th) in reading, 18th (14th-21st) in science, 16th (13th-18th) in problem solving.

It is noteworthy that the US's ranking is highest in the field where there are the least big score differences, reading - in this field, I suspect, for Europeans we see the unfortunate side effects of having the Cellphone Generation. Also note that among EU members, the worst scores are usually not that of new members but that of the Mediterranean countries, while Luxemburg and Latvia usually come as the next worst. Denmark's low score in science is also noteworthy - the effect or cause of the high career of a certain Bjørn Lomborg?...

(BTW, this and the previous story via Josh Narins. Error corrections 16/02/2004.)

Proof Of Vote Rigging?

There has been a sworn affidavit, by a programmer claiming to have written the software, Wayne Madsen reports.

Weak Dollar Good For Exports? Maybe, But...

Simplistics economism overlooks quote a few things regarding exchange rate changes and their effects on deficits. For example, a falling dollar won't change much the situation in markets where quality counts over price. The export industry needs imports of raw materials and machine parts, which would be more costly. And even a commentary in neoliberal flagship The Economist warns:

Many American policymakers talk as though it is better to rely entirely on a falling dollar to solve, somehow, all their problems. Conceivably, it could happen—but such a one-sided remedy would most likely be far more painful than they imagine. America's challenge is not just to reduce its current-account deficit to a level which foreigners are happy to finance by buying more dollar assets, but also to persuade existing foreign creditors to hang on to their vast stock of dollar assets, estimated at almost $11 trillion. A fall in the dollar sufficient to close the current-account deficit might destroy its safe-haven status. If the dollar falls by another 30%, as some predict, it would amount to the biggest default in history: not a conventional default on debt service, but default by stealth, wiping trillions off the value of foreigners' dollar assets.

The dollar's loss of reserve-currency status would lead America's creditors to start cashing those cheques—and what an awful lot of cheques there are to cash. As that process gathered pace, the dollar could tumble further and further. American bond yields (long-term interest rates) would soar, quite likely causing a deep recession. Americans who favour a weak dollar should be careful what they wish for. Cutting the budget deficit looks cheap at the price.

Of course, since most investors' vision of reality is like that of cultists in some sect, it's most likely they continue to act like a toad in a bucket of water that is boiled slowly, and when they act they'll do it in panic.

It Started...

I read today the first report claiming evidence that Middle Eastern countries prepare to switch at least part of their oil exports to Euros:

Oil exporters have sharply reduced their exposure to the US dollar over the past three years, according to data from the Bank for International Settlements.

Members of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries have cut the proportion of deposits held in dollars from 75 per cent in the third quarter of 2001 to 61.5 per cent.

Middle Eastern central banks have reportedly switched reserves from dollars to euros and sterling to avoid incurring losses as the dollar has fallen and prepare for a shift away from pricing oil exports in dollars alone.

(Via Talking Points Memo)


"It’s time for the Iraqi citizens to go to the polls. And that’s why we are very firm on the January 30th date."

Who said this? Puppet PM Allawi? Puppet President al-Yawer? Would-be string-puller Sistani?

None of them. It was the President of another country.

Fallujah: From Ruins To Concentration Camp

In US plans: Returning men to be retina-scanned, DNA-sampled, made to wear badges permanently, and clean up the rubble left by the occupiers.

Says a colonel quoted by the Boston Globe, “You have to say, ‘Here are the rules,’ and you are firm and fair. That radiates stability.” Firm, fair, and I think you’re leaving out “fascist.”
[from Whatever It Is, I'm Against It]

Can this get even more fascistic?...

...of course it can.

Moral Values &Tax Cuts

Funny story of the day - or conservatives are hypocrites Proof #9,785,213,355,45,506,777,801:

An Assembly Of God member and father of four Bush presented as tax cuts benefitter in his campaign was five months later arrested for an affair with an underage teen...

Saw at Atrios.

At Last: Pro-Democrat Blogs' War On War

I couldn't believe it. Matthew Yglesias attacks Atrios, who quotes from Matt Taibbi's dismantling of the DLC and its member and PPI President Will Marshall, and Steve Gilliard attacks both Kevin Drum and Matt Yglesias! All this on the ocassion of a DLC witchhunt against Michael Moore.

Hopefully, the critics and the Dean-for-DNC-chair proponents will not only win against the "Vichy Democrats", but shed some of their let's-praise-Kerry-time hypocrisies. On the other hand, as the manic net preacher, I'm obliged to preach doom, i.e. that there will be either endless squabble or a(nother) victory for the Demperialists.

Now others are even sceptical that a Howard Dean chairmanship would change anything significant. For them, the link to the Taibbi piece should be the most interesting, as it outlines neocon-Demperialist ties exposed during the run-up to the Iraq War.

Democracy, Theocrat-Style

Also in the Guardian, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad's latest Tigris Tales recounts a visit to a Shi'a fundie radio station urging people to vote - showing what a satire democracy becomes when the 'will of the people' is the command of the clerics.

Also, in the aftermath of Fallujah, a civil war now looks more likely - another proof of my often voiced point that even if a US pullout now would mean further carnage in civil war (as many Occupation apologists argue), continued US occupation will only make the potential post-pullout situation worse.

Regarding potential for civil war, Patrick Cockburn also makes astute observations - there are signs both for and against.

One of the most important things to watch over the next year or two is the relationship in general, obviously, between the Shia and the Sunni, but also between the nationalist groups on both sides. The Sunnis will have seen that Moktada denounced the attack on Falluja, and Sistani didn't--at least not until the last moment.

He also writes about Fallujah and Mosul, about the nature of the resistance, and about the veracity of claims about Zarqawi's influence. I particularly call your attention to the last part, where he describes the partition of Iraq (popular among Westerners who only have a simplified picture of Iraq's internal diversity) as a very bad idea.

Naomi Klein Strikes Again

In the Guardian, Naomi Klein sums up US efforts to stiffle on-site criticism of its massacres in Iraq - the systematic attacks on doctors, reporters and clerics who speak up. All this in response to the US Ambassador to Britain, who foolishly challenged her earlier on this. Here I will only quote the conclusion:

Mr Ambassador, I believe that your government and its Iraqi surrogates are waging two wars in Iraq. One war is against the Iraqi people, and it has claimed an estimated 100,000 lives. The other is a war on witnesses.

Monday, December 06, 2004

The Power Of Attraction

...is a power of Europe. I have long argued on many forums about this, for example I wrote a month ago:

the EU's unique characteristics of its neighbours more wanting to get into it than fearing takeover

To my surprise, Robert Kagan, the neocon warmonger with the "Americans From Mars/Europeans From Venus" fixed idea, turned his European Venus vision upside down, and became the first mainstream American pundit who has now noticed this - heightening the surprise, he argues it crystal-clearly on the ocassion of the Orange revolution in Ukraine, altough it's less clear in that example:

The European Union has become a gigantic political and economic magnet whose greatest strength is the attractive pull it exerts on its neighbours. Europe's foreign policy today is enlargement; its most potent foreign policy tool is what the E.U.'s Robert Cooper calls "the lure of membership."

Of course, Kagan frames this with lines reeking of the neocon recycling of the White Man's Burden, speaking about our 'task' to deal with the 'tangle of problem regions' neighbouring the current EU, and does his round of war apologism, and even resurrects the anti-French theme in a completely out-of-reality argument, but nevertheless. I thought about his probable source - he quotes Joschka Fischer and other Europeans, so it seems those TV debates I saw during 2003 did have their effect after all. (I recall in particular his exchanges with Daniel Cohn-Bendit[*], who declassed him, Kagan came across as clueless and closed-minded.)

I read this at Cabalamat, via a post by Nick @ A Fistful Of Euros. Cabalamat follows the thought and thinks about the effect of the attraction of the EU on populations under repressive regimes like Iran. I only disagree with the article about a possible EU/US good cop/bad cop cooperation - such a cynical game would destroy the attractiveness of the EU after one or two attempts. This is also the criticism I could implicitely aim at Kagan.

[*] One of these exchanges, in German, is here.

Perfect 2004 Quote For Western Leftists

"If there is no other choice, I prefer to lose over truths than to be elected for emptiness."

_Avraham Burg, former speaker of the Knesset (Israel's Parliament)

(Saw at Under The Same Sun)


Around the time the Bushistas stole their first election, on a USENET newsgroup I read, there was a New England American who was very knowledgeable about American history and about contemporary right-wing organisations. However, he seemed a bit simplistic in picking one movement as central - the neo-Confederates, Southerners seeking to implement their old reactionary causes. On the other hand, this fascist movement is really on the move now - the latest story is the election of one of them into the South Carolina state schoolboard.

While his neo-Confederationist activism is bad enough, he apparently believes the Elders Of Zion (a forgery by the Russian Tsarist secret service about a global Jewish conspiracy which then successfully deflected public anger towards the Jews, meaning pogroms, but was also used by anti-semites ever since) is genuine. Now this could be a possible reason for a right-wing split in the future (James @ Dead Men Left expects one), but never underestimate right-wing opportunism and hypocrisy.

No Fire In Da' House

Disproving my fears of Hungary turning into the region's arsonist, yesterday's Hungarian plebiscite turned out to be a failure.

To recap, there were two questions: (1) should we stop hospital privatisation, (2) should we grant dual citizenship to ethnic Hungarians living abroad. It's (2) that's dangerous because of large Hungarian minorities living in neighbouring countries, where this step would recall separatist implications; and populist because benefits would be nulled by the other countries' countersteps, and it would lead to an exodus (this is the cynical part: new voters for the right-wing). Plebiscites are valid if at least 25% of the voting-age population voted for either "Yes" or "No". Since opinion polls showed a majority approving both proposals, it all depended on the participation of those approving.

Until the last week, the government was rather inept in its "No" campaign, while the right-wing opposition (which also swung itself behind the first, originally far-leftist proposal) was on populism hyperdrive (also 'helped' by some Romanian politicians' angry comments). Unfortunately, when the government found its voice, it was a demagogic one too (much talk about budget-ruinging benefit payouts to additional 3 million citizens - tough these benefits were mostly for residents not citizens, or talk about immigrants taking jobs). Myself, I was only convinced to vote ("Yes" - "No") on Sunday morning - by an almost apolitical relative, who said a lot of friends want to vote "No" on the second question just in spite.

Now, the results are: a participation of just 37.5% (even less than predicted); 65.0% "Yes" on stopping hospital privatisation [24.4% of voting-age population], and 51.5% "Yes" on granting dual citizenship to ethnic Hungarians. Both results are in line with opinion polls, but also contrary to expectations of a higher participation of those approving - apparently, many of the latter were convinced that participation will be too low anyway (also supported by what I read on right-wing webboards), while opponents were spurned on.

Looking at these results, I have mixed feelings. On the second issue (and to a lesser degree the first) it is a good thing that irresponsible right-wing populism was trounced - but it is not that apparently, the quasi-centre-left[*] did this by employing reckless pseudo-right-wing populism itself... As for hospitals, even before the vote, the Constitutional Court nixed the government's hospital privatisation law, so falling just short of a valid and binding "Yes" is not that big a loss (the question itself was unfortunately worded as a rejection of this law) - on the other hand, a stronger warning to our government to not even think of taking up the issue again would have been good. (Especially as Bliar is a role model for our PM and some lesser Socialist leaders, and one of NuLab's central tenets is defiance of public opinion when they believe they are doing a strategic sacrifice, which is usually when they do something benefitting corporate interests).

[*] The 'Centre-left' in Hungary, which consists of the (to outsiders unlikely) coalition of ex-reformed-communist Socialists and the ex-liberal-dissident Free Democrats, is more like a West European centre-right mass party (both in its ideology and social vision) than a centre-left one. Yes, unfortunately, that means they are to the right of Tony Bliar. Note that this statement is about the elites who dictate policy, not the population - many if not most Socialist supporters still believe in socialism, while for many if not most of the remaining liberal voters freedom is still not (just) economic freedom. (As for the Hungarian right-wing, they are made up of a small party preserving a pre-WWII reactionary culture, and a non-ideological, reckless populist mass party led by a group of yuppies who started out as radical liberals.)