May 30, 2007

Send China’s surplus to Africa!

Sir, somehow I felt that a question mark was missing in the title of Martin Wolf’s “The Right way to respond to China’s exploding surpluses” May 30, since after reading it I must confess I did not feel much wiser. Yes, agreed, China is accumulating much capital now, but that perhaps this is only so because we are using very short yardsticks to measure, like years instead of decades or even centuries. Yes, it seems that China should be able to spend more on such praiseworthy items as health and education, but we also know that it is not possible to spend in a contained way without having it slip over into other demands, like for instance more cars for teachers and doctors which then will require more oil. The real answer to China’s surpluses must be helping them to come up with a long term investment plan that makes sense. For instance, in a world where the energy/carbon-emission factor is clearly going to impose constraints on growth, there might be many preparatory investments that China could do. But if we start looking at it from that angle let us not forget that the US could also be better of doing some of these investments instead of using Chinas savings in dollars for consumption, or for postponing fundamental health and education reforms.

In a global world there will come a moment when we need to start analyzing the global marginal return of projects (GMR), and, from this perspective, perhaps Glenn Denning and Jeffrey Sachs’ article “How the rich world can help Africa help itself” and that coincidentally appears next to Wolf’s might be faulty titled too and should read “How China should reallocate their savings and help Africa help itself.”

May 22, 2007

The World Bank needs a president credible to the world (and to the USA

My friend and as an Executive Director of the World Bank former colleague Otaviano Canuto is quoted in FT May 22 saying with respect to the appointment of the next president to substitute for Wolfowitz that the selection should be “based on the merits of a plurality of candidates regardless of nationality” and who could argue with that, though of course the problem of defining what are these “merits” remains.

The first and foremost merit that I believe a World Bank president must have besides the basics is to be able to generate enough credibility outside the small world of the World Bank. This is so since no matter how this multilateral twists and bends, the chances for most of the poor of this world to come out of their misery in a sustainable form lies in being able to connect with the real world. Also the World Bank itself is dependent on this connection if it is to strengthen its role as a global public-goods producer.

And so, unfortunately, we might be back to square one where the best we can hope for now, is for the United States to nominate a person that fully and truly represents the United States, and counts with the favourable opinion of Europe. By the way I would never view such a candidate as a foe but, if I did, I much more prefer to work with an impressive foe than with a diddling friend.

Let us not despair though; the time will come when the world will be ripe for Otaviano Canuto’s proposal, and much faster than what we can imagine.

No, it is the courtesy of the regulatory agencies

Sir, John Plender in “A stretched credit cycle, a more savage downturn” May 22, gives a very clear explanation of the blissful-ignorance-bubble when he mentions the fact that many of the positions “are not marked to market” but instead “marked to model”. Where he is wrong though is when he says that “Credit is being mispriced courtesy of credit rating agencies that are insensitive to market risk.” For that we should thank our financial regulators who by ordering the market to listen to the credit rating agencies created a totally new form of non-market market risk.

And please, why does Plender have to say that “high finance has never been more sophisticated”? when in fact many of us suspect we might be living the period where never have high finance people understood so little of what they really were up to.

But ignoring labour rights and standards altogether will not get us anywhere either.

Sir, Jagdish Bhagwati in “Free trade’s foes get a foot in the door” May 22, lashes out against labour standards as a tool of protectionism. Be that as it may, and I tend to agree with him on the risks of an improper use of the standards, we must still know that in order for the world to become a better place we cannot really think of splitting it up into highly-regulated-consumer-societies and free-to-do-whatever-they-want -producers. So, if you don’t want to mix trade and labour standards in the World Trade Organization, then as Bhagwati mentions you can always go to the International Labour Organization… but do it!

Bhagwati also points out as a special circumstance “that the pursuit of labour standards today reflects not altruism and empathy but fear and self interest”. I am not that sure it ever was about anything else but fear and self interest, but if we really want it to be about altruism and empathy let us then make certain we discuss the labour standards from that point of view, as ignoring them completely do not seem that compatible with altruism and empathy either.

About ageing in today’s financial world.

Sir, Nigel Andrews end his review of “No Country for Old Men” May 22 describing the bewilderment of an ageing sheriff that far from having “seen everything before” scarcely understands anything as “a murderous materialism is taking over his part of the world, sweeping up even semi-innocents in its dust-devil vortices”. Keeping the distance that review rang a bell when, just at a three pages distance, we read how John Dizard “Gold tells a sad story of asset deflation in the future” seems really to be pulling at greying and diminishing hair in pure bewilderment over what is happening in the financial world, so much that he ends with a “So sell gold now, but wait for it to begin a dramatic rally next year”. Just to make it clear, perhaps even though “much” younger than the Sheriff and Dizard, I also include myself in the list of the ageing and lost.

Is a guide to facial hair part of the World Bank’s “Doing Business” report?

Sir, when reading John Kay’s “A safety compliance officer’s guide to facial hair” May 22, you sort of start asking yourself whether these kind of questions are covered by that great Doing Business report issued by the World Bank and where the US appears in third place as to the ease of doing business.

May 21, 2007

We should be able to do a lot of good with temporary worker programs

Sir, when you comment what you find as the better flawed than nothing US immigration deal, May 21, you mention in it that “the temporary worker program offers no paths to citizenship” and that it “will merely create a huge new pool of permanently illegal aliens”. You are mistakenly looking at it from a very negative (might I dare say almost “supremacy”) perspective.

There is a real urgent need for a substantial temporary worker program that really is temporary, that has nothing to do with earning citizenship, and that if adequately executed could bring a lot of economic growth and social satisfaction for both sending and receiving countries. The program now announced might possibly be our last opportunity in a long time to have a chance of creating a good example to follow and we need everyone’s help and support for that, including yours. Many of us are already working on organizing our Central American workers so that they, while fully complying with the laws of the program, can best utilize their few legal working years in the US to earn and learn the most, so as to be able to do their best for their beloved homelands upon their return.

And, by the way, these workers, they are no aliens; they are all just earthlings like me and you.

Please assure Mr. Merton that no one is holding him personally responsible

Gillian Tett does a splendid work interviewing Mr Robert Merton “The appliance of financial science” May 21 and let us hope that on the behalf of all of us she has really been able to convey that we really will not hold him personally responsible for whatever could happen with all of his and his friend’s inventions and creations such as derivatives, option pricings and what have you, just as no one does holds Einstein and his friends responsible for what more bad the nuclear bomb might bring. Of course it will all come down to how these great and useful inventions are used.

Having said that I would like to comment on that when Merton says “Just think of all the crises that haven’t happened, say with the downgrade of General Motors and Ford” it really does not mean the negative effects have disappeared, just that they have been so diluted that we do not notice it. Spreading ink in a lake instead of a bathtub will get less noticed but keep on doing it and then suddenly you will have a whole lake go ink-blue and that could suddenly turn to be even catastrophic.

Question. Are derivatives a way of pushing things forward to future generations so as to better being able to enjoy the blissful ignorance bubble?

Stop right there! Who is the real complacent here?

Sir, does the Bank of International Settlements (BIS) really think they will now have done their part by warning the hedge funds?, May 21. BIS mentions problems such as “some erosion of counter party discipline” and “other signs of complacency” on behalf of the investment banks. Well if the regulators in BIS do not know that those risks are a fundamental part of any human behaviour then they are either totally incapable of supervising the banks they have themselves over the last few years fallen into the mother of all the complacency behaviours.

Give me someone without a conflict of interest and by definition he is a no one.

Sir, William Cohan surprisingly seems to express some surprise about that “Bankers must act to avoid conflict of interest” May 21. Hey, in my country, whichever, everyone knows that everyone with the exception of some shoe-shiners have one conflict of interest or another, and for that matter even shoe-shiners have been seen overhearing an investment tip or two.

What I really find surprising is how the financial sector regulators have been able to convince themselves to believe that their delegated authorities, the credit rating agencies, are in fact able to act free of conflict of interests. Might it be the regulators are so full of it they do not even notice?

I have conflicts of interest at all times (hum, even while sleeping) and what I found is important is to learn to keep them in check… reasonably.

May 19, 2007

Sir, keep your eyes on the ball!

Sir, I agree with every word you say in your editorial “The Word Bank after Wolfowitz” May 19, except perhaps for what could be implied by the title, that of drawing a historical line around one person. The same way that we frequently hear that countries get the president they deserve, perhaps the world has the World Bank it deserves.

What could be done? In my world, if we want good government results that have a chance of doing what is humanly good for humanity, in a shrinking world, that could only happen through more credible and better governed multinational institutions. But in this case, while rolling up or shirtsleeves to get going, we must also learn about how to prioritize our efforts. Instead of beating the good guy on the head, just because he is more amenable to being beaten on the head, and start with a World Bank that no matter Wolfowitz in relative terms still stands out as a shining example of good governance in the world, we should all concentrate more on where good governance is much more lacking and much more needed, namely the United Nations. Sir, may I humbly suggest, you help us keep our eyes on the ball!

A certified independent's view on World Bank reforms

Sir, Inder Sud in his letter “The prime World Bank issue is reforming board’s procedures” May 19, ends by saying that “What is important is to ensure that the board is truly independent and is specifically empowered to provide oversight.” Sounds nice, but that’s about it. Being arguably among the most independent Executive Director the World Bank has ever seen, having been nominated through a procedure initiate on the web by a government going through chaotic times and that when later regretting such appointment found out it was then too late to do something about it, I should perhaps know a bit or two about that issue. What on earth is independent and free of conflict of interests? In my country and yours too, perhaps some shoe-shiners could meet these criteria. And as to being empowered, the board is so more than enough, and what is missing is to make that empowerment more effective.

And in this I am in total agreement with Mr Sud, the procedures of the board need to be revised. The Executive Directors are so drowned in paper and asked to opine on so many issues, that in fact they almost mean nothing. Who is to blame and whether this could just be a Machiavellian device of management to render the board ineffective in its controls is something we could discuss another day but for me, the most important reform the World Bank board of Executives could do, is to demand from management a list of the ten best and ten worst programs or the Bank in order to dedicate themselves to scaling up the good and weeding out the irremediable bad, instead of losing so much time on the middle grey which in fact should be almost exclusively management territory.

As for a good mix at the Board I am all for it, and having a couple of independent lose cannon minds there to really question and plenty of dependant minds to anchor them back into realities, sound like the best alternative. Civil society? Why not, whatever that now means, but in an increasing global world I have also been suggesting that the global migrant working community and the multinational corporations needs to be represented.

As for the Presidency? Why not have donors bid for it and raise some money! Jest aside, though he clearly should be an independent, he should not be so much that he distances the World Bank from the real world. That no one can afford!

Per Kurowski
Former Executive Director of the World Bank
Chairman of the Voice and Noise Foundation for International Development and Global Strategic Studies.

Let us pray it stays with a headache

Sir, after reading Gillian Tett’s “A headache is in store when the credit party fizzles out” May 19, it is clear we should all go down on our knees and pray for that she is right, in that it is only a headache that is in store for us. As for myself I have serious doubts that the consequence of this blissful-ignorance-bubble resulting from our hide-and-not-seek the risks with derivatives, is unfortunately going to be much more painful than that. When that day comes though, before putting the sole blame on the poor bankers earning their luxurious daily keep, I suggest we look much closer at the responsibility of our financial regulators.

May 18, 2007

And now it is for the World Bank to convince the world that it was more than about politics

Sir, now when after so much procrastination, by all, Wolfowitz has finally resigned it is now the World Bank’s turn to convince the world that all this was indeed an institutional fight over what is right or wrong, and not some political bickering against an unpopular president.

Having had the privilege to act as an Executive Director of the World Bank (2002-2004), I am truly convinced of the high human quality of all its people but, given that out there, for instance in the world of blogs, there exist so many 100% professional haters who don’t care a iota for the World Bank as long as they get their sweet revenge on Bush or Wolfowitz, now the World Bank’s directors, staff and managers must act decisively on the fundamental governance issues, so as to distance themselves as much as possible from these loonies.

One of the first tasks has to be to review the whole concept of external assignments or secondments, since it beats me how it could have reached that point where someone could even have thought of this as a useful instrument for removing to a distant place a conflict of interest of the President, at the expense of the World Bank. Can you even think of a listed corporation trying to argue with the IRS about the deductibility of salaries paid in such a way?

As with this it should be clear that there was a serious problem even before Wolfowitz intervened pushing promotions and salary increases, something that the Executive Board also valiantly recognized, it is obvious that the institutional integrity teams, and all other, have some solid homework to do before they can re-launch the good governance and anti corruption initiative the world needs so much, and that unfortunately seems to have hit an iceberg, while still in port. I am certain that they will succeed.

May 17, 2007

Why we should beware of the use of credit rating agencies even if they are superb

Sir, by now you must know that I am one of those who have been most sceptical about the growing role that has been assigned to the credit rating agencies in channelling the financial flows of the world, which is why I commend the financial team of FT for their Failing Grades?, May 17. But, having said that let me briefly give you an example why I think we are on the wrong track even if these agencies were superbly and almost inhuman efficient in their work.

As my MBA, though not that rusty, is from 1974, pre Black-Scholes-Merton model days, I am currently trying to update it by taking the exams for a Certified Financial Advisor (CFA) in the USA, surrounded by thousands of much younger candidates. It is not easy and so that you can better understand how hard it really is, just look at the following question that appears in a CFA mock exam:

Explain whether you agree or disagree with the following statement: “The credit risk of a bond is the risk that the issuer will fail to meet its obligation to make timely payments of interest and principle”

If I had answered the above with a YES, as anyone would have intuitively done, had they not peeked in on the updates, I would have distanced myself further from my CFA certification since the right answer indicated is a “NO”, among others because the (modern) credit risk now includes a “Downgrade risk, which is the risk that an issue will be downgraded by a rating agency”

And so now, instead of having to focus on the true object of the credit risk, we must also focus on the side issue of the opinions of the credit rating agencies, and that Sir, though we might feel all cosily comforted by more knowledge, does not really seem to put the world on a wiser financial track.

I do not mind credit rating agencies but, if we are forced by financial regulators to go by their criteria, then they should be forced to be equally responsible for them. Alternatively, let them hang around, giving their First Amendment protected opinions, but do not force anyone to have to follow them.

About financial trust and integrity

Sir, Henry Paulson is absolutely right when he says that “The key test of accurate financial reporting is trust” May 17, but he totally ignores the most fundamental origin of trust, which is being able to look someone in his eyes.

If something is needed now in terms of trust in the financial sector that would be to de-corporatize the auditing process, so as to allow us to find next to each auditing statement the name and photo of the responsible auditor, or the names of the jointly responsible auditor team, and who are all willing to be held accountable and responsible for what they say, and will not run and hide behind any anonymous corporate veil. When Paulson mentions that “our markets must retain the integrity” he seems to have forgotten that integrity is inherently an issue of personal responsibility, impossible to delegate.

Inefficiencies are often very precious.

Sir, Martin Flash in response to your editorial “Corporate France comes into focus” raises the question of “Is inefficiency a cost worth bearing?” May 17. I would dare to go much further, even stating that inefficiencies are in fact extremely valuable societal factors, that should be nourished and protected, of course in an efficient way. Think of it, if the world was really as efficient as it could be, what would there be left to do for the likes of me and you. And this by the way reminds me of another issue close to my heart and that I have not written to you previously about, I think.

We often see tables where they discriminate between occupations, like agriculture, manufacturing, services and so on, but when it comes to the unemployed they are usually bunched up into one and the same group. This is tragic, we urgently need to create new categories of unemployed so that we for instance can start recording those millions that more and more belong in special categories such as the “employed unemployed” (see Scandinavia) and also the gainfully unemployed. In a global world order disrupted by more efficient job allocation it is important for Universities and others to start giving courses on how to be and make a living being structurally unemployed, (Unemployed BA)and perhaps this is something that the French, with an intuitive efficiency, have been able to pick up.

On the other hand the French, with their savoir faire, might have just decided that the markets should not be trusted in its efficiency, and personally I think they have a point, especially when some few credit rating agencies have been ordered to substitute for so much of the market.

About the underground smoking movement

Sir, Jonathan Guthrie, “A small personal liberty takes its last gasp” May 17, is definitely picking up that time honoured banner of defending the weak. I can already see him in his own l’allow smoking resistance setting up a clandestine smokers club in his basement. That’s the spirit, and if he keeps it up, who knows, he might become a legend.

Having said that, and without wanting to take away from Guthrie’s efforts and initiatives, I must comment though that this is another of those times when society with its zealotry is driving economic activities underground (in this case Guthrie’s basement) and thereby increasing, to its own peril, the many growth opportunities for the many illicit investor groups that thrive outside the reach of Sarbanes Oxley.

As for me, a non-smoker for over fifteen years now, my quitting had little or nothing to do with decrees from manageable authorities, like a government, but more with obstacles where not even resistance fighters can be of any help, namely wife and three daughters.

We better make hot fashionable before it gets too hot

Sir, Victor Mallet touches upon a very touchy subject in his “How to curb Asia’s towering energy demand” May 17, namely the extremely vicious circle of the increased use of much energy consuming air-conditioning in times of global warming. Not only do we have to construct better buildings, like those in the old days where you could open the window, but we must also fight determinately fight the status and glamour of the cold. I know what I am talking about. Anytime I had to go in Venezuela from Caracas to the much warmer city of Maracaibo I had to pack an extra sweater to survive the cold of their offices where number of BTUs per employed carry an even bigger social significance that what the number of horse powers under the bonnet of his Thunderbird could have for an American. In Maracaibo they will not rest in their hospitality efforts, trying to make you feel comfortable, until they see frost in your eyebrows. The world urgently needs some cultural icons, perhaps Bono, to be seen showing up in offices sweating a bit, and liking it, and making hot fashionable, before it gets too hot.

May 16, 2007

We only wish the first oil news from Iraq were different

Sir, FT’s front page on May 16 spells out “First crude oil pumped by a foreign group for 35 years to flow from Iraq” which reminds us of how much better it could have been with news like “First oil revenues to flow directly to the Iraqi citizens in their history”, since that could really have meant the possibility of turning Iraq into something so much better that their current only best options of ending as a third rate democracy in the hands of an democratically oil elected mogul. How sad it is seeing so many sacrifices made by so many and missing such an opportunity to make a real difference.

May 15, 2007

It should not be about compensating losers but about distributing better the dividends of globalization.

Sir, Danny Leipziger and Michael Spence the vice chairman and chairman of the Commission of Growth and Development in their “Globalization’s losers need support” May 15, by talking about the need for protecting losers are, whether they know it or not, sending a quite wrong and negative message about globalization. A more constructive way to phrase the issue would be along the lines of “We have to make sure that the immense dividends from globalization are adequately distributed” Let us be honest, it must be clear by now that some beneficiaries are just getting more than their fair share.

If for instance a Mr Carlos Slim of Mexico is able according to Forbes to turn himself into the worlds second richest persons with a wealth of $53bn by controlling the Mexican telecommunication industry, it should be perfectly clear that this has nothing to do with globalization and all to do with bad regulators.

In this respect we only wish that Mr Leipziger and Mr Spence would give more attention to the obvious needs of scaling up global antitrust legislations and of finding ways of how to assure that the many monopolies that are created through assigning and defending the intellectual property right are reasonably exploited, instead of thinking about compensating handouts. That Bill Gates gives back is commendable, but that cannot be the basis for a government policy, when every citizen should have the right to earn his own keep, even if only employed as an unemployed.

May 14, 2007

The World Bank is needed more and more

The World Bank is less and less relevant writes Armeane M. Choksi, May 14, while the truth is that a true World Bank is more and more needed in times where there are not only billions of poor that seem more left behind than ever and everything gets, or at least is discovered to be, more and more intertwined. Of course there is a lot of intellectual capacity in the individual countries but they all need a forum where they can come together and discuss economic development from a global perspective and not only from their own local needs and the World Bank is the ideal venue for that.

Clearly the World Bank needs to undergo some deep reforms in order to face up to all the new challenges, and not only with respect to its governance. Just as example they need to reduce the research that is based only on the availability of data and scale up the research that gives us better current data, like they are managing to do with their “Doing Business” reports. I have also frequently begged the World Bank to become that really carbon-solutions neutral agency we all need so as to make sense between all the green magical solutions to global warming that are currently peddled, as well as to provide the world with some good temporary-migration-program blue prints, that make sense to all parties.

That Choksi, who presents himself as a former Vice President of Human Capital Development & Operations Policy at the World Bank can even start to think that selling their prized real estate and distributing the capital gains to their shareholders has anything to do with what the word needs, is such a shame and only comes to show that even people who have been in the Bank, never understood what it was all about. The World Bank’s current loan portfolio after 40 years stands at approximately $103 bn. The USA’s total share (16.38%) of the World Bank’s total reported net worth comes only to about $5.5bn, or less than a tenth of what the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation have received in endowments.

There is life outside the consumer basket

Wolfgang Münchau writes about “The problem with inflation indices” May 14, and I agree with most he has to say, though it is somewhat incomplete, given that most of the real problem with them lies in the eyes of their beholders, when they feel beholden to use it for more than it should be used for. In other words, though economist, statisticians, Central Bankers and even normal people seem to ignore that there is still life outside a normal and standardized consumption basket, and that life is driven by house prices in mid London, Dow Jones indexes, US$1900 original handbags and their US$20 counterfeits.

Any investor who now thinks that by beating the inflation he has made enough to keep him abreast, should be up for solid surprises, though admittedly of a quite different kind than those problems that could face the investors who have beaten inflation by a lot when the liquidity pools dry up and all the risk that have gone into their derivative hidings start to show up.

May 11, 2007

Could the world’s financial nannies get away with anything?

Sir, the bank regulators of the world decided over the last decades to give some few credit rating agencies an immense role channelling the financial flows of the world. No matter what their reasons, I have always suspected it had mostly to do with some laid-off Soviet central planners migrating to Basel; they surely must have expected the credit rating agencies to behave in a responsible and accountable way. Now, when we hear these same agencies argue that all they do is opine and that their opinions are protected by the First Amendment to the US Constitution, those two basic premises do not necessarily seem so valid. Since any responsible parent, no matter how much they might trust their nanny would never want to leave their children in the custody of someone who thinks she could get away with anything, we now eagerly await what the regulators have to say about all this. Or do they just don’t care?

May 10, 2007

A scary Fantasy Island

Sir, Samuel Brittan as “An economist on Fantasy Island” May 10 scratches his head and just wonders. In a world where the IMF, in their Global Financial Stability Report, April 2007, could say something as surrealistic as “The persistence of global imbalances brings with it an important financial stability issue—the problem of sustaining the financial flows needed to support the imbalances” and get aways with it, he is certainly not alone. Sir Samuel Brittan then makes what in a financial world could be called a straddle by on the one hand preaching the advice of a-when-in-doubt-be-careful, coming out in favor of tighter money, while simultaneously reminding us of the “paradox of thrift” where an “excess of savings can promote a slump”. Let me feed the conundrum.

The world has been painting itself into a corner where if it wants to solve disequilibrium while keeping up growth, China is now its consumer of last resort. There is nothing wrong with that, except for: first we are not really certain about what could happen when China tries to cash in on their international chips to pay for their consumption, and second, given that the consumption demands of China could differ a lot from the current, whether we have sufficient environmental space so as not to burn up in a global oven, or the sufficient commodities so as not have all fizzle away in another bubble. Some Fantasy Islands are indeed great; others are just a little bit too scary.

May 09, 2007

We need an insurance for what could be discovered mapping our genes.

Sir, Patti Waldmeir in “The Dangerous new age of the genome”, May 9, writes about some legislative initiatives in the US that look to combat the “genetic discrimination” that might result from mapping the genes. This might be a good start but as I wrote in an article titled “Human genetics made inhuman” that I published in 2000, I submit that a better, or at least a more practical approach, might be to ask the insurance companies to come up with an insurance that covers any increased health insurance costs that can result from such a mapping when compared to an average citizen, and then require evidence that such an insurance has been contracted for before allowing at least any young person to have his or her genes mapped.

Sometimes the original and the pirated copies are just each other's parasites

Sir, Hugh Williamson reported May 8 that “Counterfeiting losses are less than claimed, says OECD” and mentioned that the upcoming results of some studies could prove embarrassing to some international business lobbies which have used high estimates to further their causes. I looked further into the details of such studies and found worrisome that OECD seems to put counterfeiting and piracy in the same sack of problems, where they do not belong.

A counterfeit is an imitation made with the intent to deceptively represent its content or origins. This is not only clear criminal behaviour but besides the direct costs, implies often great dangers, as for instance in the case of falsified medicine.

Piracy, the copying of a trademark or patent covered product to be sold at so much lower prices that no one could think of deceit, is comparatively speaking more of a venial sin, and about which we need more debate before declaring it so illegal that it should be hounded down, at any cost, and as a consequence increase the growth potential for those in the society that are dedicated to criminal and illicit activities.

Just as an example let me ask you the following: What is worth more, an original Vuitton handbag in a ladies lunch where all the ladies carry Vuitton, Gucci, Prada or Hermes Birkin (my daughter’s favourite, she is now looking at a pre-owned simple hand bag going for $9750) or that same handbag in a ladies lunch where all other ladies use pirated Vuitton bags. Exactly! The worth of the original is increased by the willingness of people to use cheaper copies of it. And in this respect the $900 dollar bags has nothing to do with the $20 dollar copy except as mutual parasites. You would never ever be able to sell the true bag at $900 were it not for the $20 dollar fakes, and also less of the $20 dollar fakes without the $900 original.

I have written a great book, Voice and Noise, and that is slowly turning itself into a collector’s item on account of so few reading it. I would love to have it pirated, if that would help me to reach thousands of readers. Any willing pirates out there? I could easily have my original retail for $190.

In immigration policy the perfect is also the enemy of the good

Sir, you write about “the mess over US immigration policy” May 9, and, as usually happens, most of the mess is created by those who want to court their followers by showing off that they want it all and perfect for them, when perfect, as always, is the enemy of the good.

Instead of what you imply I say for instance that if the price for getting some order back into immigration policies, before dirt hits the fan, is to have the migrants pay some punitive fees for their permits, so be it, that is still much better than having them paying the much more expensive punitive costs of not having permits. Let them put the price on the table and, after we haggle a bit, we will find the ways and means to help the migrants pay those fees.

That they must go home for extended intervals? Well we could argue about the length and the timings of such home-goings but it is not really a preposterous thing to ask of temporary work programs to include clauses that could keep their hearts warm to their homelands and lessening the risks of that heart-drain that could make their return much more difficult.

Sir, we sincerely appreciate your good intentions but please, don’t embrace us too much, and help us instead to get as many workable pieces of a solution formalized as fast as possible, before the problems get out of hand. Already having 12 million flesh and blood earthlings called illegal aliens is no minor problem.

If it was an entrapment that is almost irrelevant.

Sir, there are now some arguing that Mr Wolfowitz fell into an entrapment created by the World Bank's Ethics Committee and let me make it clear that whether this is true or not, it has nothing little to do with the real issue. Mr Wolfowitz, as the President of the World Bank should be able to know that just because an ethic committee says something might be ethical, that does not necessarily make it so. He should know that having the poverty fighting World Bank seconding someone at a foreseeable cost of US$ 2.700.000 (180.000 plus 50 % benefits times ten years) just to manage his conflict of interest is plainly wrong no matter who might say it is right.

The overwhelmingly good staff, management, board members and presidents, present or past of the World Bank, as well as a world that needs a respected multilateral institution where global challenges can be discussed, they all deserve that this issue should exclusively be about right or wrong and not just a banal pro or against Wolfowitz political row.

Mr Mander should apologize

Sir, Benedict Mander reports, May 9, that “a parade of rowdy and at times hysterical protesters yelled and whistled their way through central Caracas recently in a desperate attempt to be heard before Venezuela’s oldest and most popular television is silenced forever” and I just ask who is he to come and characterize the protesters as “hysterical”. Has he any idea of what it is to live in a country where all the judiciary and the military respond and obey blindly one who loves to be called “The Commander” and the Congress has 167 members that support him and none, zero, zilch against even though the whole world knows it is a highly polarized country, and where now they are going after the free media?

I truly think Mr Mander owes these protesters an apology.

May 03, 2007

What we need is some good carbon-solution neutral advice

Sir Jonathan Guthrie's "How I was deluded by my own carbon footprint", May 3, illustrates in a funny way the tragedy of what many of us have been saying for years, namely that to counter the serious climate change challenges, the marketing of medieval indulgences, for some fairly undefined carbon sins, in order to use the proceeds (after commissions) for some not that very clear good deeds, will just not cut it. The fact that the market seems mostly to be made up by a mix of innocent and well intentioned believers and state of the art speculators, and supervised all by an often much hypocritical environmental clergy does not make it easier. By the way it must be history's irony at work that has the current carbon indulgences system receiving its strongest support in protestant countries.

As for myself, having had some intentions to vacation in such a way that would leave a truly horrible carbon footprint, I am currently looking for someone to convince me that I am morally much better of if I allow them to finance me a more responsible alternative. Any offers? Seriously, if climate change is serious we should act seriously, and in order to do that what the world most needs is some good carbon-solution neutral advice.