Electronika 302 Recorder - by Daniel Gallegos

Zombie trade agreements: According to some documents acquired by the organization European Digital Rights (EDRi), it appears the G8 has decided to do a Dr. Frankenstein impression and reanimate some of the most thoughtless portions of ACTA’s Internet provisions. This latest instantiation of the ACTA agreement wants control over intellectual property, technology devices, network infrastructure, and YOUR BRAINS.

An awesome experiment on awards (published in PLoS ONE) by Michael Restivo and Arnout van de Rijt – both in the Sociology department at SUNY Stony Brook – shows that receiving an informal award (a barnstar) from a peer may have a positive effect on highly active Wikipedians’ contributions. The paper is only three pages long, but if you want to you can also read the Science Daily coverage of it.

Mako’s extensive account of his workflow tools is finally up on Uses This. The post is remarkable for many reasons. First of all, Mako puts more care and thought into his technology than anybody I know, so it’s great to see the logic behind his setup explained more or less in full. Secondly, I found it extra remarkable because I have been collaborating (and even living!) closely with Mako for a while now and I still learned a ton from reading the post. My favorite detail is unquestionably the bit about his typing eliciting a noise complaint while he was in college. As a rather loud typist myself, I have been subject to snark and snubbery from various quarters over the years, but I’ve never had anybody call the cops on me!

The Soviet Union lives on! But maybe not quite where you’d expect it. My friends and former Oakland neighbors Daniel Gallegos and Zhanara Nauruzbayeva have recently moved themselves and their incredible Artpologist project to New York. Upon arrival, they found themselves surrounded by a post soviet reality that most New Yorkers or Americans simply do not know exists at all, much less in the epicenter of finance capital. Their latest project, My American New York, chronicles this “post soviet America” through photos, stories, Daniel’s beautiful sketches, drawings, and paintings (e.g. the image at the top of this post), all wrapped up in a series of urban travelogues.

Philosophy Quantified: Kieran Healy has done a series of elegant and thoughtful guest posts on Leiter Reports in which he explores data from the 2004 and 2006 Philosophical Gourmet Report (PGR) surveys in an effort to generate some preliminary insights about the relationships between department status and areas of specialization.

Development Industry Fail

April 14, 2009

USA Today has a really frustrating story about the UN’s abusive misuse of USAID funds for reconstruction projects in Afghanistan.

Basically, if you can think up a malicious way to screw up a development project, the UN probably did it. They built bridges that weren’t stable; “fixed” banks to make their basements leaky; and even siphoned funds into off-shore accounts.

USA Today includes a handy PDF of the USAID report.

For anyone who’s read James Ferguson’s classic The Anti-Politics Machine, this may all sound eerily familiar. Ferguson is a Cultural Anthropologist who teaches at Stanford. While the book is pretty heavy in the social theory department (if you don’t like Foucault, don’t even go there…), it chronicles how systematic failures occur as a consistent by-product of global governance and development organization interventions in the Global South.

This particular catastrophe is a totally different kind of failure than Ferguson talks about, but I think there’s a fantastic study to be done looking at how graft has become a systematic by-product of US interventions in the War on Terror in Afghanistan and Iraq.

We’ve gotten accustomed to passing off this kind of thing as a symptom or consequence of the Bush administration, but the problem with that explanation is that the phenomenon has replicated across such different bureaucracies and contexts. This is not just a few bad apples, it’s a series of institutions that unintentionally -  but consistently – create opportunities for abuse.

Tony Curzon Price has a thoughtful piece at Open Democracy in which he examines what he calls The G20′s sins of commission.

I’m interested in a whole bunch of angles that Price explores, but the money shot for all you global governance and development geeks out there is a graph Curzon Price recycles from Paul Swartz at Council on Foreign Affairs Geo-Graphics blog:

Curzon Price goes on to use the graph to make an interesting (and important) claim about the implications of China’s newfound romance with the IFI’s and global regulation.

I, on the other hand, thought it would be kind of fun to play with the graph to try to get a better sense of what may have driven these changes in the IMF’s role over time. Since Swartz doesn’t share the data or source for his graphic, I’m reduced to hacking around with the .jpg in the GIMP (which made for a really fun distraction during a meeting the other day). Apologies for the resulting visual clutter, but here’s the same graph with some new knobs and bits. The bigger dots correspond to the events that accompanied the biggest shifts:

My jumbled, colorful dots represent a few of the most relevant political and economic events of the past thirty years. What’s interesting to note is which ones seem to correlate with changes in the IMF’s role as the “lender of last resort” for the Global South. Here’s the key to the dots:

  1. Margaret Thatcher elected: May 1979
  2. Black Monday: Dec 1987
  3. Berlin Wall taken down: November, 1989
  4. Soviet Union Collapses: December 8, 1991
  5. Mexican Peso crisis: Dec 1994
  6. Asian Financial crisis: July 1997
  7. Brazil devalues the Real: Jan 1999
  8. Dot-com bubble bursts: March 10, 2000
  9. September 11, 2001
  10. Argentine debt default: Dec 2001
  11. US invades Iraq: March 20, 2003
  12. Brazil and Argentina pay off IMF debts: Dec. 2005
  13. Global Recession: October 2008

Some of the things I thought might correlate with sudden changes in the global weight of IMF lending – such as Black Monday (2); the Dot-com bubble burst (8); Argentina and Brazil paying off their debts (12) – didn’t seem to matter at all.

Others – such as Thatcher’s (and Reagan’s) election (1); the Mexican Peso crisis (5); and the 1-2 combo of the Asian (6) and Brazilian (7) financial crises – appear magnified when seen through this lens.

Most intriguing to me is the long steep slide that occurs following September 11, 2001 (9). My inclination is to explain that as the result of a perfect storm that combined the eroding credibility of the IMF (Joe Stiglitz, eat your heart out!) and a real estate derivative and petro-dollar fueled explosion of private lending world-wide. No matter how you slice it, though, there’s no denying that the world financial system has gone through some exceptionally dramatic changes in the last ten years.

Other than that, I don’t have a flashy Theory of Everything to explain all the data here. Heck, as I said, I don’t even have the data. Nevertheless, it’s fun to speculate.

ASEAN may go ahead with once-scrapped plans to create an Asian Monetary Fund as an alternative to the IMF.

Seems to me like a redundant effort that only makes sense given the extent to which the IMF does not respond effectively to the needs of the majority of its member states.

Multilateralism falls apart if you don’t cultivate it in good faith.

Brace yourselves for a flurry of promises and diplomatic hand-waving as the world prepares for this weekend’s global financial summit.

The NYT reports that the G20 wants a bigger say in the global economy. Problem is, the global financial summit is not designed to achieve far-reaching structural changes of the sort G20 leaders such as Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva are seeking.

The European Network on Debt and Development suggests that Europe will bring lofty ambitions to the table as well, but precious little in the way of concrete mechanisms or meaningful procedural reforms to affect change.

My sense? Prepare for disappointment. As Aldo Caliari points out, the timing and form of President Bush’s economic summit is designed to undermine ongoing negotiations at Doha and avoid the transparent and multilateral approach of the United Nations. As such, the whole affair is looking depressingly similar to the original Bretton Woods meetings of 1944. Until the U.S. and Europe show the political maturity to surrender some authority and embrace a truly multilateral process we will get a lot of fluffy proclamations but few substantive changes.

Don’t get me wrong, I suspect that there will be some impressive sounding stuff that comes out of this weekend’s meetings. I have no reason to believe, however, that it will be anything like the kind of democratic, equitable sorts of reforms to global trade and finance that the world so deeply needs.

Iceland and Hungary are the first recipients of IMF loans as a result of the current global financial crisis.

In a sign of what’s to come, the Fund is already demonstrating its continued willingness to impose policy conditionalities on borrower states.

The Guardian has the story in Hungary:

This week the International Monetary Fund stepped in to stop any more investors from pulling their funds out of the country altogether. Hungary is now set to become the first EU state to receive an IMF lifebelt – of around €12.5bn.

The bail-out announcement received a mixed response in Budapest yesterday. “We have a credit noose around our necks,” declared the rightwing daily Magyar Hirlap, while another paper showed bundles of forint notes being sucked up by a cyclone.

“This is going to be tough,” said the tabloid Blikk, pointing out that a condition of the loan would be a 300bn forint cut in public spending, which will likely lead to high inflation and attacks on social benefits.

And the Financial Times covers Iceland:

The application will be presented to the IMF’s board on Thursday and the central bank said a condition attached to the loan was for a rate rise to 18 per cent.

The move reversed a 3.5 per cent rate cut announced just two weeks ago by David Oddsson, central bank governor, underlining the influence the IMF now has over policymaking in Iceland.

Brian Coulton, managing director at Fitch Ratings, the credit rating agency, said Iceland’s central bank had “no choice but to work very closely with the fund”.

While the policy conditionalities attached to the loans appear less extensive than the intrusive demands the IMF and World Bank used to place on its borrowers, the persistent willingness of the Fund to dictate borrower fiscal policy suggest that the D.C.-based institution has failed to learn from experience. IMF-sponsored structural adjustment policies implemented throughout the 1980′s and 90′s precipitated a string of fiscal crises in the economies of the Global South.

While I’ll have to dig around in the academic journals to assess whether there’s any evidence that IMF-loans caused later crises among borrower countries in the 80′s and 90′s, the historical record in places like Argentina, Mexico, and Brazil is pretty clear: in the process of imposing conditionalities had profound flaws that facilitated the collapse of otherwise strong currencies.

The obvious difference this time around is that the borrowers are in Europe – it will be interesting to see how this affects outcomes.

Didn’t see this story until after I had posted earlier today. The lede from the Guardian:

Asian and European leaders today called for more international regulation and a stronger role for the International Monetary Fund in response to the worst financial crisis since the 1930s.

No surprise there. All the questions I outline in my post below still apply.

Meanwhile, the story goes on to include at least the second mention I’ve seen that Brazil is considering going to the IMF for funds in response to the crisis.

The problem is there is no attribution for this assertion, which (if it were true) would constitute a major about-face for the Lula government and a big news item in Latin America’s most populous nation and most globally integrated economy.

So, did the author just make it up? I don’t know, but I can’t find any evidence to support his claim in the financial section of Brazil’s most reputable paper, the Folha de Sao Paulo. Similarly, other English language publications, such as the Christian Science Monitor, have run stories suggesting that Brazil is among the best prepared countries to weather the crisis in terms of its cash reserves.

Given the sensitivity of global markets right now, I hope the Guardian editors will consider investigating this rumor before it gets out of control. Bond rating agencies read this kind of stuff and they won’t like it even if it is just an irresponsible slip.

Reinventing the IMF?

October 26, 2008

With the continued decline of financial markets and the threat of radical destablization throughout the Global South, I suspect that a consensus view that the IMF must step in to ensure the solvency of developing countries is already spreading quickly among the punditocracy and major news outlets.

The IMF (photo by Kyrion cc-by-nc-nd)

The IMF (photo by Kyrion cc-by-nc-nd)

Given the weakened condition of wealthy states and corporations, the IMF will play a major role in any sort of multilateral bailout. Indeed the crisis presents an opportunity for the Fund to resurrect itself after a number of very, very bad decisions made in the Neoliberal 1980′s and 90′s finally came home to roost, bringing shame upon the organization and its ideas.

The question is what kind of an IMF will we get this time around? The critical work of Joseph Stiglitz, Ngaire Woods, and others has provided ample evidence that the Fund’s proclivities for anti-poor policies were not an accident, but a systematic result of the organization’s structure and culture.

Since 2002 (when such positions first gained widespread traction), there has been much talk of reform – a trend which will no doubt continue well past November’s Global Financial Summit – but precious little action.

The U.S. and Europe still retain a ridiculous share of the voting power within the IMF, World Bank, and the WTO, virtually guaranteeing that they will strong arm through whatever solutions they deem fit. While Ambassadors, Trade Representatives, and their ilk may talk a good game about promoting equality through increased multilateral liberalization, the bottom line is that truly equitable trade will not come about without a substantial sacrifice by the traditional “Great Powers” of the West. The recent trend of the U.S. and E.U. pursuing absurd schemes to evade accountability and transparency by undermining global forums also belies any rhetoric of good will.

Does the IMF have what it takes to bring about a true shift in the underlying structures of the global financial system? I doubt it, but it will be revealing to see just how hard Dominique Strauss-Khan (if he holds onto his job now that he has officially held onto his job despite a sex scandal) and his colleagues will try.

I was working on a short article this morning that looks at some of the recent global governance conflicts over Access to Knowledge when I realized that it’s been a while since I’ve heard of new developments in the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) negotiations.

Ever since Senators Pat Leahy (D, VT) and Arlen Specter (R, PA) voiced their concerns to the USTR and the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade let on that the future of the agreement might be at risk, my RSS feeds and email lists appear to have gone silent on the issue.

Even the USTR has not had anything to say since this October 10 statement (pdf) issued immediately following the Civil Enforcement negotiations meeting.

The best theory I can come up with (absent any evidence whatsoever) is that the trade representatives and negotiators have been a little busy lately dealing with the trade-related complications of the global financial crisis.

Anybody out there know what the USTR’s been up to these days or have new information about ACTA?

Mallaby’s editorial in today’s WP echoes some of the broad points I tried to make in my last post, but goes into greater detail on some plausible concrete outcomes from the proposed Bretton Woods Redux.

The key points are in the following paragraphs:

So what might a new Bretton Woods conference usefully do? Well, it could reform the IMF, which has evolved from its original role into a rescue fund for collapsing currencies. During the emerging market crises of a decade ago, the IMF was central to all the bailouts. Its status has since dwindled…

Reestablishing the IMF as the agreed provider of bailouts would be a worthwhile project. The IMF puts economic conditions on its loans while governments place political ones; we don’t want to revive the cronyism of the Cold War, when countries from Cuba to Zaire could pursue absurd policies and know they would be bailed out because they were strategically useful.

The irony is that Britain and France will be the first to resist a serious effort to revive the IMF. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown talks vacuously about giving the organization the role of creating an early-warning system for crises, even though this is what thousands of economic forecasters already try to provide. What Brown does not stress is that serious IMF reform needs to begin with the modernization of its board. Rising powers such as China and India deserve more say. Declining powers need to give up some influence — and that includes France and Britain.

Like I said, we’re heading for Doha all over again…

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