Monday, October 24, 2011


On Friday President Barack Obama announced that all US troops in Iraq would be withdrawn by the end of the year. As the Americans like to say, "home for the holidays". The end of 2011 was an "aspirational" deadline set by the Bush administration (which, if you remember, started the nonsensical war while hunting for non-existent weapons of mass destruction) in 2008 - Obama only took office at the beginning of 2009.

Obama has been accused once every 13 seconds (according to stats I projected from people whining on the plethora of news channels in the US) of this being a political decision rather than one which is militarily justified. Basically, Obama is ending the war to increase his popularity rather than because it is a justified decision. You know, because there is an election coming up.

Well, "analysts" are forgetting that there is actually quite a lot of time before the next election. It is only in November next year - that's over a year since Obama made the withdrawal announcement (which was 21 October 2011). These experts who are screaming that it is only in Obama's interest, and not in the national interest are missing a fairly sizeable point.

Firstly, it is worth remembering that the Obama has far more access to information and background than any mainstream and a lot of localised media. Basically, his decision is based on far more facts to which anyone sitting outside Baghdad, and many sitting within it, has access. While the senior commander in charge of the mission, General Lloyd J. Austin III (a rather large dissenter of the withdrawal),  would also have access to large amounts of information as well, by virtue of leading a mission, there is a bucket-load of diplomatic data which he, most likely, has not seen.

There would be huge risks in withdrawing troops to boost his poll ratings if the situation in Iraq goes tits-up. If the rate of violence in Baghdad begins to spike again (recent events have gone against more medium-term gains in stemming violence) or if US national security (which is what they call foreign policy a lot of the time here) is compromised in any way. In fact, if troops are withdrawn from one of the countries in which the US is responsible for security, and then something happens on US soil, Obama is finished. The US takes national security incredibly seriously - as would a nation who has faced attacks like 9-11 and chats about domestic safety with BFF Israel. If Obama makes a decision which weakens the US' defence of its borders, he will be collecting unemployment from November next year. No question.

And I highly doubt the president is only thinking up to this year's holidays. It is unlikely that anyone in Obama's administration, and yes, that includes defence secretary Leon Panetta, would allow the president to do so, in spite of Panetta's recommendation to maintain 3,000-4,000 troops in Iraq. Governments around the world think further than two months - everyone older than five years thinks further than two months. While I can't conclusively prove to you that Obama is thinking past Christmas, he is surrounded by seasoned politicians - think Joe Biden, Panetta and Hillary Clinton - who would mop up any basic mistakes like that. 

The other aspect of this whole deal that Obama is taking in the neck deals with the fact that the president was happy to allow a few thousand troops to remain but decided not to because the Iraqi government would not give them immunity. The Bachmanns and other political figures have claimed that Obama couldn't get them immunity because he was "not committed". I'd love to see them argue for keeping the armed forces, probably the most respected grouping of people in the US after the National Rifle Association, without diplomatic and legal protection. In this sense, if anyone is trying to score political points, it is those public figures lashing Obama's decision.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Dilma Rousseff’s anti-corruption struggles

The president of Brazil is having struggles; her cabinet members are dropping like flies as her anti-corruption drive is being manipulated by politicians pushing their own means. 

 Brazil president DIlma Rousseff. Image:

Anti-corruption drives are supposed to be a thing of beauty. But putting corruption above all else might not be the best way to run a state, and this is quite beautifully displayed by the political recession in which President Rousseff finds herself. Brazil’s wiliest, and, to be honest, some of its average, leaders have often used the media to one-up each other, but its complicated system of coalition governance (the current government majority in parliament is made up of ten parties, and the opposition, six) sports so many fingers in the pie that it is often quite hard to work out whose knife-handle happens to stick out of any particular back.

Rousseff happens to have made two honourable calls since taking the reins of the world’s seventh largest economy. The first being to weed out corruption (a huge problem – Transparency International’s corruption index places Brazil in 69th position – South Africa is 54th), and the second to slash $30 million from the state’s expenditure for the year in preparation for a turn in the roaring Brazilian economy’s fortunes. Most of these cuts came from discretionary spending enjoyed by politicians, including niche “pet” projects. This has caused severe strife amongst some leaders, and the procession of cabinet ministers leaving the side of Rousseff because of accusations, proven or otherwise, that have forced them out. The most recent under fire is Orlando Silva, the sports minister, accused of siphoning off funds from a ministry programme intended to bring recreational facilities in poor areas.

Brazil has lost four cabinet ministers during Rousseff’s seven-month presidency, and on Monday the procession began to excise a fifth. When Rousseff began her anti-corruption drive in July, she focussed it on the ministries of transport and tourism – both headed up by officials from outside the Workers Party (of which Rousseff is top member). The growing middle-class of Brazil, much like in South Africa, has far more of an issue with corruption than the poor who care more for things like housing and poverty alleviation schemes. Think Maslow. In fact, under Rousseff’s predecessor, the highly popular Lula da Silva, 36 million people moved into the lowest rung of the middle class (earning between $1,000 and $3,900 per month). Out of an electorate of 135 million, that’s a hefty number of votes. Rousseff therefore took a political opportunity, very publicly clamping down on corruption before the centre-right opposition, who are supposed to cater for middle-class concerns, did (simply, it’s like the ANC getting to a solution to Rondebosch and Randburg voters before Helen Zille wakes up). What looked like a smart political move has gone completely tits-up though, and threatens to spiral out of control. In fact, it looks nowadays as though the president isn’t even running it.

The Brazilian media, most notably the influential weekly, Veja, has whipped up allegations from a surging wave of anonymous sources who claim to be whistleblowers, which Rousseff now has to treat seriously as the drive is her own initiative – in spite of a heft portion of them having as much proof as the Yeti’s recipe for Loch Ness Monster soup.

Aside from the four members who have already left cabinet, Rousseff is due to lose a fifth, has seen 30 transport officials go, and 38 warrants of arrest have been issued for tourism ministry staff.  It’s probably also worth pointing out that her initiative has only initially examined two ministries. The Brazilian cabinet has 37. While the tourism chief has somehow kept his job, chief of staff, Antonio Palocci (who also served under Lula) resigned under a corruption cloud, the defence minister left after he told everyone he voted for the opposition, the transport minister, Alfredo Nascimento, also gave in, as did the agriculture minister, Wagner Rossi. In fact, both Nascimento and Rossi claim there is no truth to the allegations against them, but have walked anyway. Cities minister, Mario Negromonte has the same, oddly familiar noises. This last weekend has been ugly for her too: Glesi Hoffmann, who replaced Palocci as cabinet chief, has been accused of claiming unemployment benefits when she left the board of a giant power company to run for a senate seat.

The media’s willingness to air alleged/suspected/reported dirty laundry of just about anyone in cabinet has meant that political scores are being settled in the media. Allegation after allegation has been scribed and will now be processed, and obsessed over, and more people will fall. More pressure is weighing on Rousseff’s shoulders as five of the six cabinet minsters have been from other parties in her coalition – only Palocci came from the Workers Party. Whether their departures are justified or not, it is putting pressure on her governing alliance. In fact, when Nascimento was replaced by Paulo Sergio Passos (both from the Party of the Republic) as head of the transport portfolio, and intra-alliance spat ensued as members weren’t consulted in a fashion they thought appropriate. They are no longer part of the coalition although the effect of them leaving is negligible; they are a minor player.

The relationship Rousseff needs to look after is the one with the Brazil Democratic Movement Party – her vice-president, Michel Temer is the leader of the party, the second largest in Brazil. (Incidentally one of last momth’s smuttier news stories is that Temer’s sister-in-law earned the right to appear on the cover of Playboy Brazil). So don’t be surprised if the new agriculture minister gets an easy time of it, along with other PMDB-run ministries: Mines and Energy, Social Security and the Secretariat of Strategic Affairs (which oversees things like nuclear, space programmes, national intelligence). But naturally, dirt on anyone that could begin to affect the ruling alliance would be wonderful for the centre-right opposition.

Rousseff, in response to this crisis which is threatening to derail her presidency has offered meek responses so far, claiming that the “PT (Workers party) and the PMDB (Brazilian Democratic Movement) are the basis of the stability and trust of the government” while also maintaining she is not trying to force people out of cabinet. It’s not quite enough when senior politicians are falling like dominoes.  

Dilma Rousseff’s near future is going to be damn hard, and she would do well avoid making Brazil’s actual issues contest for attention.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Herman Cain. What matters and what doesn't?

Republican presidential candidate, Herman Cain, has taken quite a lot of flak since he started his surge to the upper results of the polls in the last month. This is partly because he is the frontrunner and is therefore dangerous, but also because he is a moron. Let's go over some modern Cain details:

1) 999. Of all the things I am sick of hearing, it's 999. All the time, Cain's solution to any problem is 999. Unemployment? 999. National deficit? 999. Fix the economy? 99 sodding 9. This is Cain's proposal to have a 9% payment tax, 9% corporate tax and 9% sales tax countrywide. His argument is that this is a simple system that Americans can understand. Well, it's also a dumb system with no proof whatsoever that it will work, but it is SIMPLE therefore it is GOOD. Hear that, America? You're too stupid to work out what a 15% payroll tax is, so we'll make it 9%. Companies, fire all your finance people because we're wiping the tax system. Anyone who can multiply a number by nine and divide by 100 can be an accountant. Oh also, poor people, you'll be paying that same percentage of your income as those who earn bucketloads. And you'll be hit with a 9% sales tax too. People who are actual economists and can explain numbers, instead of just shouting the same one repeatedly, expect Cain's plan (and I use the word in the loosest of terms) to force lower income earners to put more of their income towards the national kitty due to the sales tax than they do right now. It also doesn't take state taxes into account.

2) "When they ask me who's the president of Uzbeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan I'm gonna say "You know, I don't know. Do you know? And then I'm gonna say, "how does that create one job?" - Cain.
Yep, this is Cain's attitude to foreign policy. Well, screw the name of the country (which the reporter actually used in the question which led to this answer. If you're a Cain fan reading this it's Uzbekistan). It's always nice when a man vying for the presidency of the world's most powerful nation couldn't give a wank what the name of your country is. While Cain fobs Uzbekistan off as not important enough to matter, he'd do well to, you know, acknowledge the presence of US bases there (and in neighbouring Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan). Can you guess which country they border? Afghanistan. Can you guess where arms were delivered before Kabul (the capital of Afghanistan, by the way) was "liberated"? UZBEKISTAN. I think it's inconsequential that Cain doesn't know the president's name. Neither do I. And I'll bet you no one in the current US government other than Hillary Clinton knows either. Incidentally it's Islam Karimov. I get that jobs are probably the hottest electoral issue, but surely it can't come at the expense of every single other thing?

3) "It was a joke". This has twice been Cain's reponse to the media or a rival picking up on some ignoramous thing the candidate has said. It's his sole defence. In 2008 Cain wrote a column for Economic Freedom Coalition, in which he suggested Tiger Woods would be an excellent Republican presidential candidate come 2016 when Obama had finished two terms. This was when Tiger was still a darling of the world, before we found out he had a woman in every city and was about to destroy his marriage and reputation, so we can't really fault Cain for that. However, what we can fault Cain for is pretending it was all a joke. Which is complete crap. Read it yourself and point out the jokes. How dumb does the man think Americans are? (I suppose we covered that under 999). His other "joke" was this: "We’ll have a real fence. Twenty feet high, with barbed wire, electrified, with a sign on the other side saying, ‘it will kill you'". He followed it up with these comments, "What's insensitive is when they come to the United States, across our border and kill our citizens, and kill our border patrol people. That's insensitive, and I'm not worried about being insensitive to tell people to stop sneaking into America." In South Africa we have a word for this. It's called xenophobia. And that it not even remotely the same as actual immigration policy. Of course it would be unreasonable to allow people over the border willy-nilly, but to stoke xenephobic fires by implying that Mexicans come "across our border and kill our citizens" has a huge social impact. Nasty social impact. Oh, I forget. He was just joking.

While I would be supporting Mr Obama again in the next election, I hope intellectual Ron Paul hammers Cain tonight. It really shouldn't be that hard.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

How Simon saved R1.2 million in 5 minutes

On Monday the National Youth Development Agency released a statement in response to a Sunday City Press report detailing the specifics of just what was spent on its World Festival of Youth and Students; a breakdown of the R106 million spent on the bash. And just so you’re aware, the funding for this nonsense came through the National Lotteries Board (R40 million) and the Presidency (R29 million).

I may not be an expert on balloons (which for which festival organisers paid R100,000), entertainment (R5.3 million) or confetti (R60,000 – for, erm, paper), but I did see that the NYDA spent R5.6 million chartering a plane to fly the 227 delegates from Havana direct to Johannesburg as no commercial airlines operate that route. And I do know travel.

The thought that all delegates should be flown direct annoys me, purely because it is, without a doubt, the most expensive way to fly in economy class. It is complete snobbery to assume that flying 1-stop is anything more than slightly inconvenient. To assume a divine right to be able to fly anywhere without stopping is rude to those of us who don’t have access to millions to just jump on an expensive route. Just think about how is reduces your options and therefore competition when flying direct: usually it limits you to two airlines; the one in the country from which you are flying and the one from the country to which you are travelling. Think of how many people fly the Arab airlines (Emirates, Etihad, Qatar) to the UK, or fly via Hong Kong or Singapore to get to Australia. These are cheaper alternatives to flying with SAA, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic or Qantas. So one-stop is a very acceptable manner in which to travel long-distance, and a lot of people do it. Mostly to save money.

Not so the National Youth Development Agency who, as I said, threw R5.6 million at a chartered aircraft. So I did a little digging. Five airlines, from what I can tell, have flights, or aircraft through alliances, which operate between Havana and Johannesburg. These are Virgin Atlantic, Iberia, TAAG, Air France and Air Canada.

As the World Festival was held from 13-21 December 2010, I did a search for a two-week stay in South Africa, departing Cuba for around that time in 2011, bearing in mind that this is peak holiday season in South Africa; the time of year when airlines charge the most for travel.

The only conceivable way one could have used more money to get delegates from Havana to South Africa is to have used TAAG, the Angolan national airline. Fares to Luanda (the website wouldn’t connect me from Havana all the way to Johannesburg) were US$4149. At 227 tickets that’s R7,450,030.

However, Iberia, Spain’s national airline, services that route for a fare of US$2,399, meaning the entire fare for all delegates would have totalled R4,307,892, a saving of around R1.2 million. A full percentage point of the total expense of the festival. Around R4,500 of each ticket is tax, meaning that the average fare is around R16,000. And if one approached an airline asking for 227 tickets, there is a chance that fare could be negotiable. By chartering a plane this opportunity was lost.

So a few quick airline searches resulted in a saving of R1.2 million.

Now, who knows how much balloons cost?