Aaron Swartz’s suicide over the weekend is a tragedy. His death has affected many people very deeply, including many of my friends who were very close with Aaron.

Personally, I did not know Aaron well, but I regard him as an inspiration – as much for his quiet thoughtfulness and kindness as for his amazing achievements, intellect, projects, and democratic (small “d”) ideals.

I don’t have much to add to some of the heartfelt responses many people (including Cory Doctorow, Larry Lessig, and Matt Stoller) have posted elsewhere; however, as I have thought and read about Aaron over the past couple of days, I have decided that I want to commemorate his life and work through some concrete actions. Specifically, I have made some vows to myself about how I want to live, work, and relate to people in the future. Most of these vows are fundamentally democratic in spirit, which was part of what I find so inspiring about so much Aaron’s work. Not all of my commitments are coherent enough or sensible enough to list here, but I will put one out there as a public tribute to Aaron:

I will promote access to knowledge by ensuring that as much of my work as possible is always available at no cost and under minimally restrictive licenses that ensure ongoing access for as many people in as many forms as possible. I will also work to convince my colleagues, students, publishers, and elected or appointed representatives that they should embrace and promote a similar position.

This is a very small and inadequate act given the circumstances.

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The news that during the creation of Bain Capital Mitt Romney sought large investments from some of El Salvador’s notorious “oligarchs” should not be particularly surprising given the extent of the support the US government and private sector provided to the Salvadoran government and political elites during the country’s civil war from 1980-92.

In the grand narrative of the 2012 presidential campaign, I suspect this story will figure as (at most) a very minor footnote. Nevertheless, I wanted to draw attention to it because of my personal connections to El Salvador and the persistence of that country’s civil war in the lives of so many of its residents.

During and after my first year of college, I visited El Salvador for almost 9 months. At the time, I worked with a small community organization called Grupo Tamarindo (that would later be known as the Tamarindo Foundation – warning: link is to their Facebook page).

The Tamarindo Foundation online presence doesn’t really do the group justice. By the standards of the nonprofit and NGO sector, it’s a tiny organization with almost no budget and even less in the way of public relations materials to document what its members have accomplished in the group’s nearly 20 years of existence.

During that time, the group and it’s leader John Guiliano have sought to rebuild the town of Guarjila, El Salvador and, in particular, to create opportunities for the town’s young people to pursue education, arts, athletics, and entrepreneurship.

The Tamarindo has made progress towards all of these goals and more while working on a shoestring budget, microscopic scale, and generational time-horizon. That said, any progress has been slow, and the underlying cycles of poverty and violence that make life in El Salvador and in Guarjila so precarious persist.

In this way, over twenty years since the Salvadoran civil war ended, its effects can still be felt, whether in the gangs that were formed in U.S. prisons by war refugees or in the lack of adequate educational and career opportunities that lead so many of El Salvador’s young people to seek employment and security through illegal migration.

The current goal of the Tamarindo is to build a community center where the organization can continue to do its work. In order to support this goal, John has started a bicycle ride across the United States. After handing in my dissertation draft last Sunday, I joined the first three days of the ride from Boston to New Haven. You can follow the ride through John’s Facebook updates and donate (via their ImAthlete page). The itinerary includes stops across the country and, if you want to learn more about the Tamarindo, the ride, or El Salvador, I encourage you to contact John and attend one of the tour events.

Members of the Grupo Tamarindo training for the ride.

Gavin Newsom, looking slick (photo: Wikipedia)

Gavin Newsom, looking slick (photo: Wikipedia)

The SF Chron reports that Gavin Newsom loudly declared his candidacy for governor via social media services like Facebook and Twitter yesterday.

In his speech Newsom promised “to spin CA to the future.”

Ugh.

Welcome to the sad reality of post-Obama politics in the U.S., where every candidate will succumb to the temptation to imitate the form and style of the OFA campaign without capturing the substance.

If Newsom is any indication, many of these candidates will fall flat on their faces – repeatedly – in the process.

Somebody get this man a new speech writer.

(updated: April 24, 2009 )

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.

I’m working on a short article about this topic and was crunching some World Bank Development Index numbers today.

The payoff for you, dear reader, is the following factoid of the day:

From 2000-2008, approximately $97 out of every $100 earned internationally from licenses or royalties was paid to a high income OECD country. In contrast, Latin American and Caribbean countries combined to earn $0.005 (yes, one half of one cent) out of that same $100.

Got that? $97 vs. $0.0o5!

The moral of the story: cheap laptops and broadband are only the tip of the iceberg.

Eat your heart out ICT4D community.

President-Elect Obama’s team at Change.gov has posted their first batch of replies to a few of the most popular inquiries submitted via the bally-hooed question tool since it went live last week.obamalogo

If you really want to read the responses, go ahead, knock yourself out. They’re just like the comment threads at DailyKos/LGF/Wonkette/BoingBoing/Lifehacker except they’re completely dry, soul-less, and snark-free.

Take this stirring exchange, for example:

Q: “What will you do to establish transparency and safeguards against waste with the rest of the Wall Street bailout money?” Diane, New Jersey

A: President-elect Barack Obama does not believe an economic crisis is an excuse for wasteful and unnecessary spending. As our economic teams works with congressional leadership to put together a plan, we will put in place reforms to ensure that your money in invested well. We will also bring Americans back into government by amending executive orders to ensure that communications about regulatory policymaking between persons outside government and all White House staff are disclosed to the public. In addition all appointees who lead the executive branch departments and rulemaking agencies will be required to conduct the significant business of the agency in public so that every citizen can see in person or watch on the Internet these debates.

Can you even remember the question after all that opacity? Turns out the White House press corps might not be out of a job after all.

Be honest, though, who’s actually surprised that the Obama team is sticking to their script and refusing to engage in precisely the sort of off-the-cuff banter that makes conversations on the Internet interesting? I was at an event with a few members of their new media team last week and these folks are at least as disciplined as a Bill Belichik offense.

For all the hoopla about the many wonderful ways in which Change.gov might transform the relationship between the POTUS and the rest of us, it’s going to take more than a few Rick-rolls before somebody mistakes this site for 4chan. (Dear Mr. President Elect, I video taped myself asking you a very important question: please watch it here!)

That said, the first idiot who celebrates the fact that someone in the transition team took the time to answer the question about legalizing pot ought to have their head examined. It may be Democracy in motion, but only in the sense in which Jeffersonian “mob rule” sense. I’m not one to romanticize the high-flown days of the republic of media gatekeeping, but this is just campaigning by other means and a waste of everybody’s time.

It may not matter, though, because unless the Change.gov team loosens up a bit (and opens the door to the risk of a mini scandal or two), I suspect people will quickly forget about this site after the inauguration.

Brazil as Petro-economy

November 23, 2008

Ever since the announcement of the discovery of Brazil’s Tupi oil field earlier this year, I haven’t really taken the time to think about the political implications of the new-found reserves. This article from the Christian Science Monitor is suggestive in that regard. Unfortunately, the piece hews to a decidedly optimistic storyline about how the income will pay for new social welfare programs. That’s all well and good, but let’s take off the rose-tinted glasses long enough to consider at least a few of the less attractive alternatives.

I share the view that Brazil’s new-found oil wealth will bring about transformative changes within the country’s economy, its state, and its society. The infusion of cash will indeed open up untold opportunities for closing Brazil’s notorious wealth gap. It will also further entrench Petrobras – already one of the largest firms in the Global South – as a worldwide energy-production leader. To the extent that these opportunities are managed effectively, Brazil will gain in influence, wealth, and international prestige.

However, to the extent that the Petrobras windfall is managed poorly and generates unanticipated spillover affects, it could easily produce a catastrophe. The sudden surge in income will likely give Petrobras executives and investors even more political clout than they already have, leading to increased opportunities for corruption (already a neverending problem in Brazilian politics), graft, and nepotism within the state. Furthermore, only an immense amount of well-channeled political goodwill can prevent the expansion of Petrobras from encroaching on the political interests of Brazil’s other burgeoning industries and its most vulnerable citizens.

This is not about simple optimism or pessimism, but rather about the realities of imbalanced petro-economies. The reasons why other oil-rich nations have such a horrendous track-record in terms of political accountability, transparency, and inequality has a lot to do with the pressures that a burgeouning state-owned energy sector tends to place on the rest of the state and private sector. Just because Brazil has enjoyed sustainable growth and social progress since the mid 1990’s does not mean that it has somehow “advanced” beyond the point at which its oil might prove more troublesome than its worth.