Friday, February 27, 2009

Lost Season Five: Episode Seven

I find myself in a strange position. I think 'The Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham' was the best episode of the season - maybe one of the best in the show's history - and yet I don't have much to say beyond "Terry O'Quinn....OMG, WOW!!!"

About once a season, Lost does an episode that is more concerned with character than plot and mystery. When the character in question is Jack or Kate, the episode is usually a bummer. But take the acting skills of Terry O' Quinn and you have a classic on your hands.

The first time I saw this episode, I found Locke's meetings with Said, Hurley and Kate slightly dull. His attempts to convince them to return to the island seemed perfunctory. It was only after Jack told Locke that he may not be someone important, that I realized Locke wasn't convinced that he was doing the right thing. The Locke we see in this episode is a broken man, forced back temporarily into his wheelchair, unsure of who he can trust. Locke figures out that he is not a saviour, at best he is a pawn being played by both Widmore and Ben.

Terry O' Quinn's acting here is so spot-on that he even manages to elevate the performances of Matthew Fox and Evangeline Lilly. Kate has never been better than when she asks Locke if he has ever loved anyone.

And then there's Ben. O'Quinn doesn't need to elevate the always fantastic Michael Emerson; their scenes together are always mesmerising, perhaps none more so than in this episode. We all know Ben is a masterful manipulator, but has he ever faced a bigger challenge than restoring Locke's sense of self-worth and dissuading him from killing himself. That Ben turns around and kills Locke may have been inevitable but Emerson's performance was so perfect that I was nonetheless shocked.

The 18th century philosipher John Locke believed in natural law, that science and faith could coexist. The Objectivist Jeremy Bentham mocked that theory, having no time for mysticism. In one episode and one mesmerising peformance, Terry O' Quinn made that most improbable of transformations.

Note: I wanted this review to be all about the acting, so all the geeky stuff can be thrashed out in the comments. Feel free to theorize on what role Walt may play in the future, the true motivations of Widmore and Ben, who the two new characters are and how exactly Locke was reserrected. You all can also mourn the early demise of Abbaddon.

More Political Instability: Just What The Doctor Ordered

I can see why Asif Zardari might look at Pakistan's war with the Taliban, collapsing economy, downturn in relations with India, militant activity that has claimed the lives of hundreds of innocents, and think: wait a minute! We need more crises here! The party's just getting started!

Let's be serious for a second, because Asif Zardari sure as hell won't be. I want to make three points in this post. First, I want to talk about what "democracy" as a political dispensation really means. Second, I want to talk about how little Asif Zardari cares about this thing we call "democracy". Third, I want to talk about how Asif Zardari is kind of an asshole on a purely personal level.

1. What does "democracy" mean?

Last summer, I took my qualifying exam in Comparative Politics, and one of the two topics I dealt with was democratization. One thing that struck me reading all those books and articles was how little consensus there is on the big questions in the process of democratization, and the concept of democracy more generally. There is disagreement, for instance, on whether democracy should refer to the mere holding of free and fair elections, or whether it should also entail certain societal freedoms. There is disagreement on whether the primary causal factors in states becoming democratic are culturally given, economically given, institutionally given, or social-structurally given. There is disagreement on whether democratization is an elite-led or middle class-led phenomenon.

What there is little disagreement on, however, is the fact that democracy involves limits on power. It entails a circumscribed notion of what leaders can do once they gain the important executive and legislative offices of the land. It implies that individuals can only go so far before their will is subject to institutions or checks and balances. Democracy, then, is best understood as a balance of legal power at the national level.

2. Asif Zardari does not care about democracy

For all the nonsense about democracy being the best revenge, and all the meaningless platitudes that Zardari has peddled in the Western press about a return to parliamentary supremacy, let one thing be absolutely clear: Asif Zardari has no interest whatsoever in limits on power. Six months ago, Hussain Haqqani Zardari penned the following lines in the Washington Post:
If I am elected president, one of my highest priorities will be to support the prime minister, the National Assembly and the Senate to amend the constitution to bring back into balance the powers of the presidency and thereby reduce its ability to bring down democratic governance.

Evidently, this priority was not high enough. Anyone expecting otherwise was and remains a complete fool. This includes our charming Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani.
Associates of Mr. Gilani say the prime minister has grown frustrated at Mr. Zardari's failure to fulfill his promise to reduce the presidency to its traditional role as head of state, allowing the prime minister to take a bigger role in decision-making and appointments.

Really? Did Gillani honestly expect otherwise? If he did, then he's dumber than I originally thought, and let me tell you, that's really saying something.

The sidelining of Amin Fahim and Aitzaz Ahsan, the continued allergy to an Iftikhar Chaudhry-led Supreme Court, the choice of Salman Taseer to play spoiler in Punjab -- these are all instances (among many) of Asif Zardari being concerned first and foremost with solidifying and extending his control of both the PPP and the country at large.

It is safe to say, then, that Asif Zardari is not concerned with limits on power. This is another way of saying that Asif Zardari is not concerned with democracy.

Sidenote: about four or five weeks ago, a student in a class I TA raised her hand. We had been talking about formal models (game theoretic analyses of politics writ large) in the preceding fifteen minutes or so. Now, those who know me well know my methodological biases against game theory: I think -- to put it kindly -- that it is a crock of shit.

Anyway, this girl raised her hand and started railing against some of the assumptions made in these formal models. One quibble she had was with the fact that many formal models assume explicitly that leaders care most (or only) about staying in power. "I don't think that's a very realisitic assumption," she sniffed. "Leaders care about their populations too." I told her: "Look, I'm with you on the general fact that assumptions in formal models are unrealistic. But I think there is scant evidence to suggest that leaders care about the people they govern in any meaningful way. You can disagree with me, but I just don't think it's true."

I'm glad I have Asif Zardari around to prove me right, once in a while. If ever we needed evidence that the well-being of the average Pakistani is not of concern to Asif Zardari, his providing impetus to a very real risk of even greater political destabilization of Pakistan at this juncture in out history has provided it.

3. Asif Zardari is an unpleasant person

We have the Wall Street Journal to thank for these remarkable tidbits (and Nabeel, no doubt, for sending me the link). I will simply copy and paste the relevant excerpts here; there is little need for me to comment.
Since taking over the presidency last September, Mr. Zardari has surrounded himself with a small cadre of advisers, many of them unelected, including family members and associates whom Mr. Zardari got to know in jail or in exile, leaving even government officials unsure of who runs what. Among the members of Mr. Zardari's inner circle: his former physician, Dr. Asim Hussain, who in addition to running a hospital in Karachi is the government's adviser on petroleum affairs and runs the oil ministry, despite having no background in the industry.

At meetings in recent months, according to several witnesses, he lashed out at senior ministers, calling one a "witch" and another "impotent."

And, with more detail on the "impotent" claim:
At a meeting in mid-January, Mr. Zardari taunted Sen. Raza Rabbani, Pakistan's provincial coordination minister, calling him "impotent" after the two disagreed on how to approach allied political parties about running certain candidates in upcoming Senate elections. "You always say no, and that is a reason why you don't have children," the president told the 55-year-old senator, according to multiple witnesses.

In previous meetings, Mr. Zardari has called a senior cabinet minister a "witch" on many occasions. He has told others to "shut up" or mocked their personal foibles, divorces, affairs. "This is what you come to expect at the presidency. You go there and you are insulted," said another senator who was at the mid-January meeting.

Good times.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Thoughts on the Nawaz-Zardari Saga

Reasonable people can disagree over the legality of the Supreme Court’s decision to declare Nawaz and Shahbaz Sharif ineligible to stand for election. As it happens, I am far more interested in the political fall-out of this decision. I must confess that I have no clue what is going to happen next. At best, I can lay out certain scenarios. The fickle loyalties of Pakistani politicians will determine which of these scenarios plays out. The only thing I can say with certainty is this: the status-quo, with the PPP-led coalition governing from the centre and a PML-N government sans Shahbaz in the Punjab, cannot last another four years.

Firstly, Nawaz has been praised in certain quarters for his refusal to bend his principles. This is a debatable proposition, but there is no denying that his intransigence has left him without any major allies. His two most vociferous supporters, the Jamaat-e-Islami and Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf, boycotted last year’s elections and are bereft of any meaningful political power. The JI’s ability to gather crowds (an exaggerated ability but one that does exist) is nothing compared to the seats the now-defunct MMA had in the previous National Assembly. The PML-N’s refusal to meet with Chaudhry Shujaat and create an opening for a PPP-PMLQ alliance was also a costly mistake and one that the party may be regretting.

The PML-Q, supposedly in tatters after its dismal showing in the elections, now holds the balance of power in Pakistan. They have two options: to join hands with the PML-N to bring down the PPP in the centre or ally itself with the PPP to pass a no-confidence motion against the Punjab government. If it chooses the latter, I suspect the PML-Q will demand the chief ministership in return for its votes. Prepare yourselves for the return of CM Pervez Elahi, or even more horrifying, CM Moonis Elahi. The PML-Q has the third option of doing nothing, but I see no reason, besides stupidity, for it not to take advantage of its relative importance. Congratulations Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif. Your inability to look beyond your narrow interests has revitalized a moribund party.

If there is one true villain in this saga, I would like to nominate Punjab Governor Salmaan Taseer. He could have defused the situation to some extent by reconvening the Punjab Assembly and allowing the PML-N to vote for a new chief minister. Instead he decided to impose Governor’s rule for two months. And when the PML-N MPAs attempted to meet at the Assembly, he forcibly kept them out, forcing them to gather under a staircase in the building, thereby allowing the PML-N to move to an even higher moral ground.

Will the army, surely looking on in delight as this drama plays out, ultimately decide who the victor is? Its hard to find out what the army is thinking right now but its intentions should become clear pretty soon. Another wild-card is Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gillani. Recent reports suggest that he is disgruntled about playing second-fiddle to President Zardari. Even de-facto Interior Minister Rehman Malik and Communications Minister Sherry Rehman seem to outrank him. Gillani has also made some sympathetic noises towards the PML-N. Will he have the courage to oppose Zardari and come out in favour of the PML-N.

Either way, everything will have to sort itself out within a month. One-third of the current senators will be replaced in March and the PML-Q will lose many seats to the PPP, making it harder to pass a no-confidence motion against the sitting government.

David Brooks Rediscovers His Burkean Epistemological Modesty Six Years After Supporting The Iraq War

Now I love David Brooks' writing as much as anyone, but surely no one can possibly be this self-unaware. The level of unintentional irony dripping in his latest op-ed is hard to express.

Let's begin at the beginning. First, Brooks tells us he read Burke in college:
When I was a freshman in college, I was assigned “Reflections on the Revolution in France” by Edmund Burke. I loathed the book. Burke argued that each individual’s private stock of reason is small and that political decisions should be guided by the accumulated wisdom of the ages. Change is necessary, Burke continued, but it should be gradual, not disruptive.

Excellent. So Brooks read Burke in college.

Next, we're told that social engineering projects - those that rely on quick and non-gradual change - have a terrible historical record:
Over the years, I have come to see that Burke had a point. The political history of the 20th century is the history of social-engineering projects executed by well-intentioned people that began well and ended badly. There were big errors like communism, but also lesser ones, like a Vietnam War designed by the best and the brightest, urban renewal efforts that decimated neighborhoods, welfare policies that had the unintended effect of weakening families and development programs that left a string of white elephant projects across the world.

Ok, I'm with you there. Unintended consequences and all that.

Next, Brooks waxes eloquent about the virtues of doubt and epistemological modesty; how important it is, in other words, to know how little we know:
These experiences drove me toward the crooked timber school of public philosophy: Michael Oakeshott, Isaiah Berlin, Edward Banfield, Reinhold Niebuhr, Friedrich Hayek, Clinton Rossiter and George Orwell. These writers — some left, some right — had a sense of epistemological modesty. They knew how little we can know. They understood that we are strangers to ourselves and society is an immeasurably complex organism. They tended to be skeptical of technocratic, rationalist planning and suspicious of schemes to reorganize society from the top down.

Finally, Brooks brings the circle to a close by telling us how wary he remains of Barack Obama's agenda of wholesale change:
Readers of this column know that I am a great admirer of Barack Obama and those around him. And yet the gap between my epistemological modesty and their liberal worldviews has been evident over the past few weeks. The people in the administration are surrounded by a galaxy of unknowns, and yet they see this economic crisis as an opportunity to expand their reach, to take bigger risks and, as Obama said on Saturday, to tackle every major problem at once.

Ok, so to recap: doubt good, wholesale societal change bad.

What a difference six years makes, eh? Let's see what David Brooks had to say about those who had doubt about, um, a scheme to reorganize society from the top down:
The American commentariat is gravely concerned. Over the past week, George W. Bush has shown a disturbing tendency not to waffle when it comes to Iraq. There has been an appalling clarity and coherence to his position. There has been a reckless tendency not to be murky, hesitant, or evasive. Naturally, questions are being raised about President Bush's leadership skills.

Meanwhile, among the smart set, Hamlet-like indecision has become the intellectual fashion.[...]

In certain circles, it is not only important what opinion you hold, but how you hold it. It is important to be seen dancing with complexity, sliding among shades of gray. Any poor rube can come to a simple conclusion -- that President Saddam Hussein is a menace who must be disarmed--but the refined ratiocinators want to be seen luxuriating amid the difficulties, donning the jewels of nuance, even to the point of self-paralysis.

As far as I gather, if Brooks is correct, it is important to be held back by Burkean doubt when (a) the society being reorganized is American, and (b) the person doing the reorganizing is Barack Obama. On the other hand, doubt and indecision is to be mercilessly mocked when (a) the society being reorganized is Iraqi, and (b) the person doing the reorganizing is George W. Bush.

Put differently, if you actually have a mandate and support for reorganization ("Change"), then you should not pursue that reorganization. But if you have no legal, moral, or strategic reason to reorganize ("War in Iraq"), then you should pursue that reorganization.

Have I missed something?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Barcelona 1 - Lyon 1

I'll take it. I'll bloody well take it. Here are my thoughts on today's game:

1. If Barcelona win the Champions League this year - along with La Liga - there will be many heroes and contributing figures. Victor Valdes will belong in neither of those categories. He can make spectacular saves at times, to be sure. But his positioning and silly mistakes could (and have) seriously cost Barca. Over the weekend, he gifted Ivan de la Pena Espanyol's second, when the game was still in the balance. Today, he came forward to an admittedly wicked freekick from the maestro (Juninho) before realizing he really should have gone back. Of course, by then, it was too late. One nil down inside seven minutes, and Valdes once again showing that he is the worst keeper of Europe's top teams.

Barcelona have to be one of the few teams whose excellent defensive record has nothing whatsoever to do with their defence. At some point, Laporta and Beguiristainet are going to have to seriously consider spending some big money on a big goalkeeper, because this fellow is an idiot.

2. Give credit to Henry. He's clearly lost pace, he's clearly lost some of his striking ability, but he's an astute and intelligent player who often happens to be in the right place at the right time. He's a shadow of his former self, to be sure, but he's still an asset (though all bets are off if Ribery is available over the summer). During a period of increased pressure from Barca, they won a corner, which Marquez guided to the far post, which Henry duly deposited away with a diving header. One one at sixty seven minutes, and suddenly Barca had broken through. He's had a lot of moments like this over the season - seemingly in and out of the game, suddenly scoring or assisting a key goal - and deserves credit.

3. Speaking of giving credit, give credit to Lyon. They played a very interesting game tactically - they got in Barcelona's face, they challenged them high up the pitch, they were very quick and threatening on the counter, and they constantly used Karim Benzema (an absolute beast) as a pressure release valve. They didn't really allow Barcelona to settle in the first 35 minutes or so, and full credit to them for that. They showed up to play, which is more than what I can say for, ahem, some teams. This tie is by no means over; Barca may have the all-important away goal, but what Benzema showed me today is that you can't give him an inch of daylight. And, as always, Juninho is deadly in dead-ball situations (no pun intended), so Lyon are still very much in this.

4. I have said this before, but I'll say it again: no team tires you out like Barcelona. They regularly keep the ball for 60-65% of games, even against good and great sides. They keep you chasing shadows, and eventually simply wear you down. I heard one of the commentators mention today that close to one-third of their league goals this season have come in the last 15 minutes of play. That is not a coincidence - it is simply the opponents efforts' flagging as the constant defending and running takes its toll.

5. One encouraging sign, especially given last year's disastrous season, was Barcelona's ability to get back in the game (a) after going a goal down, and (b) despite not playing at their best. This is all Guardiola. Under him, the team has a steely disposition that was simply absent in Rijkaard's last two years.

Today, a number of important players - including Messi, Eto'o, Henry and Dani Alves - were below their best. And yet they stuck to the task and kept knocking on the door, eventually getting the equalizer. It bodes well for the rest of the season that they can salvage something from games like these, because they sure as hell didn't last year.

6. Speaking of Pep, he had a mixed game. I thought it was interesting that he changed things up in the second half, switching Eto'o and Messi in their roles (Messi playing a more central role; Eto'o switching to the right), primarily - I suppose - to give Messi more attacking options (he was crowded the entire game). This brought back memories of the dream 05-06 season, when Eto'o, Messi and Ronaldinho would regularly switch positions, leaving teams confused and in disarray as far as formation goes. Guardiola, as far as I have seen, is less experimental, but he brought it out today after an underwhelming first half, and it worked.

That said, I simply did not understand the Busquets selection. Look, the kid is a good young player, but should he be starting an away game in the friggin' Champions League? I don't think so. Frankly, he looked out of his depth. I would have much preferred Keita to play - indeed, the latter came on for Busquets in the second half - or even Gudjohnsen, with Hleb and/or Busquets possible substitutions. Maybe I'm being harsh, but I certainly did not see anything that warranted Busquets' selection.

Other results on Tuesday:

Manchester United 0 - Inter Milan 0 (I think Inter will be happy they walked away with a draw after that first half)
Roma 0 - Arsenal 1 (Enough of a lead to take back to Italy?)
Athletico Madrid 2 - Porto 2 (Athletico done and dusted, correct?)

Consider the comments section an open thread on Tuesday's and Wednesday's results.

UPDATE: Wednesday's results:

Real Madrid 0 - Liverpool 1 (They've done it again, haven't they?)
Villareal 1 - Panathinakos 1 (No way Villareal is getting a result in Greece)
Sporting Lisbon 0 - Bayern Munich 5 (Keep your pants on, Adeel, it's only Sporting)
Chelsea 1 - Juventus 0 (See Roma-Arsenal comment above)

Comment away.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Oscar Predictions

Unlike Ahsan I know next to nothing about football, so I'm going to limit my predictions to pop culture. Here is who's going to win and who should win at the Oscars tonight. I've cheated a bit in my who should win picks by including movies that haven't been nominated.

Best Movie

Who Should Win: The Wrestler
Who Will Win: Slumdog Millionaire

Best Director
Who Should Win: Charlie Kaufman for Synecdoche, New York
Who Will Win: Danny Boyle for Slumdog Millionaire

Best Actor
Who Should Win: Mickey Rourke for The Wrestler
Who Will Win: Mickey Rourke for The Wrestler

Best Actress:
Who Should Win: Anne Hathaway for Rachel Getting Married
Who Will Win: Kate Winslett for The Reader

Best Supporting Actor
Who Should Win: Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight
Who Will Win: Heath Ledger for The Dark Knight

Best Supporting Actress
Who Should Win: Marisa Tomei for The Wrestler
Who Will Win: Penelope Cruz for Vicki Cristina Barcelona

Best Documentary
Who Should Win: Man on Wire
Who Will Win: Man on Wire

Best Song
Who Should Win: Bruce Springsteen for The Wrestler
Who Will Win: A.R. Rahman for Jai Ho

Best Original Screenplay
Who Should Win: Wall-E
Who Will Win: Milk

Best Adapted Screenplay
Who Should Win: Slumdog Millionaire
Who Will Win: Slumdog Millionaire

Champions League Picks

Finally. It's here. The first knockout round of the Champions League, after a too-long hiatus. Here are my picks:

1. Porto over Athletico
2. Barca over Lyon
3. Arsenal over Roma
4. Inter over Man U
5. Real over Liverpool
6. Juve over Chelsea
7. Villareal over Panathinakos Panathinakos over Villareal
8. Bayern over Sporting

Discuss in comments below.

Pakistan in Pictures

The Boston Globe has posted a collection of 40 absolutely stunning photographs from Pakistan. Check them out here.

Photo Credit: Athar Hussain/Reuters

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Deep Thought Of The Day

Seven points seems like a decent lead only if you forget that it was twelve two weeks ago.

Microsoft-Word-Changing-The-English-Language Watch

According to the red squiggly line Nazi, "clientelism" is no longer a word.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Lost Season Five: Episode 6

In many ways this week's Lost was extremely predictable. We knew that some or all of the Oceanic 6 would make it back to the island; hell it's been obvious since the season three finale nearly 2 years ago. Yet '316' was filled with enough suspense and new questions to be among the better episodes of this season. And we got a classic Ben performance.

- Nice callback to the opening scene of the first ever Lost episode. Jack stranded alone in the jungle before he hears a voice calling for help. This was an episode for the old-timers as we got plenty of echos to the first season.

- There were some great touches as the Oceanic 6 (now Oceanic 5, but more on that later) tried to recreate the events that lead to the crash of Flight 815. We had Locke as Christian Shepherd, Sayid taking Kate's place as he was escorted onto the place in handcuffs, Jack arguing at the check-in counter about a coffin as he did when he was taking his father's body back to LA, Hurley carrying a guitar just like Charlie did and even Ben mimicking Hurley's late arrival.

- We didn't learn too much about the two other passengers but you can be sure they will have a significant role to play. The woman escorting Sayid is played by Zuleikha Robinson of Rome fame and the guy who commiserated with Jack over Locke's death is played by Said Tuaghmaoui. Apart from sharing a name with Mr Jerrah, Tuaghmaoui was also in the movie Three Kings, where he played a torturer for the Saddam Hussein regime. I bet that's the only reason the Lost guys cast him. Chances are these two are Widmore's men although they could just be Ben's henchmen.

- So, where the hell is Aaron? My guess is that Kate didn't want to bring him back to the island, so she dropped him off with the one person she could trust. If, as most people speculated at the time, what Sawyer whispered in Kate's ear as he jumped off the helicopter was that she should find his daughter Clementine, it is possible that Aaron has a new playmate. Or he could have been killed. Really, anything's possible.

- Who or what convinced Hurley, Sayid and Kate to go back to the island? I don't know about the latter two but I wouldn't be surprised if Charlie's ghost told Hurley to go back to the island.

- Ben got off some great lines this episode, none better than his reply to Jack's question, "How can you be reading?" Ben's retort: "My mother taught me." Given that his mother died in childbirth, it's obvious that the bugger can't stop lying even in the most inconsequential situations.

- Lapidus really needs to get his beard back.

- Here's what everyone wants to know: did Ben kill Penny? I'm going to so no because I can't contemplate the show without Desmond and Penny. I'm sure Ben tried but I hope Desmond beat the crap out of him.

- Interesting that Ben was reading James Joyce's Ulysses on the plane. Ulysses is hugely influenced by Homer's Odyssey, in which the main character remains faithful all his life to a woman named Penelope. I knew that English degree would come in useful someday.

- Back when the Faraday, Sawyer and the others moved into the future and found the raft, there was a water bottle with the Ajira Airways logo. Which just happens to the airline the Oceanic 5 were flying. I guess this means the Losties are now shooting at each other. Or there were other people on the plane (Widmore's men?) who want them dead.

- Why did Jin not recognize Jack, Hurley and Kate? Is he working undercover for the Dharma Initiative and he didn't want to have his cover blown? Or is this some time travelling kink?

- Finally, something uber-geeky I learned from the forums. This episode was titled '316' after the number of the flight the Oceanic 5 took. They would never have taken the flight had it not been for John Locke. Do you know what John 3:16 says? "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." Make of this what you will. John Locke as Jesus, Locke and the other's getting eternal life or just a load of bullshit. Your guess is as good as mine.


Thursday, February 19, 2009

YouTube of the Day

A US soldier dresses down an Iraqi police battalion. I wonder how accurately the translator communicated the American's sentiments.

Random Stuff (Not Just Links) That I Found Funny

First of all, the NYT has gotten its own columnists confused:

Since when did Kristof grow that ugly-ass beard?

Moving along, please check out this priceless quote from Nicklas Bendtner:
''I'm very sorry to see Adebayor injured as we need him fit and to be playing in the league,'' he told the Daily Mirror. ''But it does not really matter to me who is fit and available.

''I should start every game, I should be playing every minute of every match and always be in the team.''

Staying on our sports-related theme, Kamran Akmal has managed to maintain his spot in Pakistan's test team. Actually, this item is more tragicomic than purely funny. I'm really wondering whose sister Akmal has to fuck to finally get dropped.

Hilarious piece in The Onion.

Monica has a funny post on the G8 summit/international frat party.

I could have sworn I had more stuff in the memory bank but it's late so I'm going to bed.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Poll Post

You can comment on the poll here, if you so desire.

A Conversation With Political Economist/Columnist Mosharraf Zaidi (Part II)

This is the second installment of my two-part conversation with The News columnist Mosharraf Zaidi. Part I, which you can read here, covered education in Pakistan, clientelism, Barack Obama, and Asif Zardari. Part II covers the IMF bailout, Pakistan's political economy, the middle class, and foreign policy.

Ahsan: Let's move from politics to political economy. I read your columns regularly during the run-up to the IMF bailout. You often repeated a variant of this phrase: Pakistan's problem is simply that it spends more than it saves. Can you expound on that?

Mosharraf: Sure. Just to clarify, what I was saying, or should have been saying is that Pakistan spends more money than it has.

I am trying to appeal to your common sense, rather than the idea that economics is a complex black hole that is only comprehensible to supercomputers and bankers that wear better suits than you and know long words that don't mean anything.

So the first thing we do is identify the problem. The problem at that time was (and soon once again, maybe even this year will be) that Pakistan doesn't have any money. Now the thing that makes the need for money urgent is that Pakistan owes "people" (lenders) money. If it doesn't pay back that money according to the agreed schedule, the whole system takes a nosedive, because at that instant, the theory is that nobody would give Pakistan any money in the future. It would have proven to be a bad place to give a loan--having "defaulted" on its obligations.

That's the problem. But the problem is defined on the terms of someone who thinks that the infinite supply of loans to Pakistan is important. Who would think such a thing?

Someone who needs that money. Who needs the money? Let's see.

The biggest chunk of money in the Pakistani budget is for paying back loans, ironically. So of course Pakistan's creditors, those banks, countries and organizations to whom Pakistan already owes money. They need the money to keep flowing in, so it can keep flowing out.

The second biggest chunk of money in the Pakistani budget is for the military. So of course, the military needs the money to keep flowing in.

The third biggest chunk of money in the Pakistani budget, cumulatively, is the cost of running government--salaries, pensions, electricity--the works. So the government and its employees all want the money to keep flowing in.

(Some will argue that without this money, how will the government provide services. Uh, what services?)

Don't forget subsidies like the ones for PIA--which not only makes it a nightmare to travel anywhere, but also charges your children and their children money, so that political parties can firm up votes.

We digress. So essentially, Pakistan's taxpayers are perpetually in debt as a collective, because international bankers need bonuses, generals need tanks, and bureaucrats need a chair to sit on, from where they can make your life miserable.

This is spending more money than you have, and doing it without any real purpose--in a normative sense. Of course Pakistan should default. This is not ideology. Its common sense.

Ahsan: Ok.

How do you feel about Musharraf's economic policies in retrospect? There was significant growth, the middle class boomed, refrigerators and cars were bought, and then the floor came crashing down. First, the global price of oil skyrocketed. Second, the wheels came off politically and militarily, leading to a crisis of confidence. And third, water and energy shortages meant businesses simply couldn't do what they had to.

All that aside, people like Shahid Javed Burki are on record as saying Musharraf's economic policies were, at best, band-aids - and that they were shortsighted and reliant on contingent factors like foreign investment. Do you agree with that assessment?

Mosharraf: I have to admit that I was bullish on the idea that Aziz and Co. were capable of delivering sustained growth in Pakistan--but I was always very worried about the very thin and superficial basis for that growth. Essentially it came from four places. The deregulation of the telecom sector, the innovative enterprise of Pakistan-returns post 9/11, the real estate boom, and the explosive growth in the banking sector. The growth was financed by two external factors: remittances from Pakistanis abroad, and inflows from the US. The US impact is overstated and the remittance impact is understated. Its about 3 to 1 (3 remittance dollars for every one US assistance dollar).

But I think there's a problem of perception in Pakistan that the economic well being of the country is a government domain. It is not. Never can be. The Pakistani private sector is one of the great untold stories of laziness, incompetence, greed and elite capture of state resources. It shoudl be no surprise that the government is always there for the rich--not just generals and fuedal lords and bureaucrats, but also for so-called capitalists. And never there for the foundation of growth, the middle class.

All said and done however, the Musharraf era was transformational in the sense that it creates the momentum for a middle class narrative. This was an unintended consequence of the economic policies pursued during the first decade of this century. The lawyers movement was the first squeak. The real war in Pakistan now is the war on the middle class. If the elite wins it, Pakistan has no hope. But this is not a war that will be lost or won in weeks or months. And the elite hasn't even begun to invest in the weapons that will decide this war. Blogs, social networks and knowledge.

Ahsan: What is the "war on the middle class"? I am completely unfamiliar with this war. To me, there is no middle class in Pakistan - a politically salient one anyway. The relevant political actors are:

1. The military
2. The feudals
3. The faux capitalists/industrialists
4. The bureaucracy
5. The lawyers (since March 2007)

None of those are even remotely middle-class in any common-sense understanding of the term (although the bureaucracy comes close I guess). As for the "biggest war in Pakistan", I would say the following qualify:

1. The state vs. the Taliban
2. The government vs. anti-Americanism/talk shows on TV/the new nationalist right/the old religious right
3. Centralists/Punjab vs. federalists/smaller provinces
4. The fourteen liberals left in the country vs. everybody else (not exactly a fair fight, but neither was the first Gulf War, and we still call that a war, so there).

None of those are defined by class-based cleavages. So I ask again: what is this "war on the middle class" of which you speak?

Mosharraf: I use the term in the most unscientific way possible. And the middle-class is not entirely politically impotent, though I couldnt' agree more that it has a long, long way to go. I should also point out that the right/left construct only exists in books anymore. I mean, really. Have you seen the right? They talk like Che is in the back changing, and that Karl was one of the disciples. The right isn't what it used to be, and neither is the left. Anyway, that's a whole other discussion.

Within Pakistan, I'd say you are middle class if you are not elite, and not poor. Poor is less than 5 dollars a day. Elite is a phone call away from the rule of law. Everything in between is middle class. So the lawyers are middle class, the competent employees at PIA, middle class, the entrepreneurs post Amreeka return, middle class. Incompetent PIA employees who are there because of their politics are elite, or elite-constituency. I keep using PIA because it is such an accessible example.

Issues in Pakistan that are being discussed on blogs like All Things Pakistan, Grand Trunk Road and Five Rupees today are going to occupy the heart of public policy within the next decade. And none of the protagonists of these blogs (or thier readers) qualify as elite, or as poor. I know it won't fly in PolSci 101, but that's cool. No one's looking. There is a small, and increasingly important middle class in Pakistan. And the elite don't like them. They want them to disappear. Immigrate to Australia or Canada in the best case scenario, and actually physically disappear in the worst. Hence the war on the middle class.

Ahsan: We'll simply have to agree to disagree on these definitional issues then. To me, if you have a car and a house in a country where a third of the population (at least) doesn't have clean drinking water and half can't read, you're elite. That means the authors and commenters on Five Rupees and Grand Trunk Road are elite. Can't say anything about All Things Pakistan, because I don't read it.

To be self-referential for a second, I also have to take issue with your statement about the stuff being discussed here forming public policy debates for the next decade. One thing that is really disheartening for me personally is how far out of the mainstream I exist. The fact that I believe in secularism, and rapprochement with India, and political and diplomatic disengagement with the Arab-Israeli dispute, and a woman's right to marry whomever she chooses without threat of violence or even social shunning, means I'm engaging in conversations that public policy simply isn't concerned with. It's not even on their radar. It's a whole different world. The older I get, the more this is rammed into my head.

Have you read Lipstick Jihad? It's actually pretty decent, despite my low expectations going in. Its subtitle is "A Memoir of Growing up Iranian in America and American in Iran". It really captured a lot of my thoughts on the quasi-immigrant experience. I am forever made to feel like an outsider in Pakistan by the Imran Khans and Ayaz Amirs and Talat Hussains and the Urdu op-edders and the America-bashers. My ideas find acceptance nowhere other than my close friends; even much of family thinks of me as some fringe lunatic. And you really should read one or two of the extreme comments we've gotten on this blog.

All this is to say that (a) who you count as middle-class count as elite for me, and (b) that particular section of the elite is about as politically and socially irrelevant to Pakistan's future as Cartman.

Mosharraf: Happy to disagree on the definition, after I point this out. If you're in your car, headed toward your house, and the cops stop you, and decide to search you, harass you and accuse you of things that you haven't done, you're elite if you can shout them down, or call their boss, or their bosses boss. But if you end up at the thaana, with nothing but dad, chaaha and maamoo looking out for you--you are not elite, even by the technical definition. The majority of car owners in Pakistan are helpless sheep. They have no access to justice, if justice decides to miscarriage on them. None. That's not elite. That's developing country middle class. Hope no one is waiting for Henry Ford in the developing world--that paradigm is done and dusted. So too is the chronological fiddelity of that model. The Pakistani middle class will not follow a pre-defined set of parameters as it comes into its own.

On the "mainstream", one thing that I think a lot of privileged middle class young people don't realize is how deep rooted the changes that have taken place in Pakistan really are. I won't go into a list, but some of the fundamental assumptions about Pakistan are actually begging to be corrected. Pakistan is now an urban country, not rural. If there's a half-decent census (not possible in the current atmosphere) you'll see the urban share of the population has gone past 40%. Then consider that the current definitions don't really account for extended metropolises and peri-urban areas. Then consider that if you can get cable, and have a highway nearby (that's virtually all of the Punjab save three to five districts, out of 35) then how "rural" really are you? Point. The mainstream in Pakistan is not what it used to be. Syeda Abida Hussein said horrible things about middle class Pakistanis in an interview with the Wall Street Journal before the election. One generation ago, that was not news. Now it is. She's over as a political entity. Her ilk is near extinction as well. Two more election cycles and all this will be more obvious than it is right now. It might not even take a full ten years.

The things you beleive in are not a unique set of ideas, much as they might seem to be from reading the newspaper and watching television. They are more mainstream than the regressive politics that dominates the national landscape. In part this is because the middle class has yet to "land" it is still circling the airport tentatively. The landing is inevitable because it will run out of fuel--or to translate the metaphor, the middle class will engage politically because it has to, not because of a high minded nobility of ideals. Its engagement alone will transform the mainstream into a place where having radical ideas on either end of the spectrum is recognized as the lifeblood of a dynamic soicety.

If I sound overly optimistic, it is because I am. The lawyers movement was not about the handful of elite-captured politicians who can read poetry. It was about the political activation of a generation. Remember, since the PPP began, and for some, since the PNA, there's been no new political blood in Pakistan. This movement has injected freshness. It won't be pretty, or always rational, or liberal. But it will create the space for those things.

Ahsan: I don't think the lawyers movement was the political activation of a generation. I think it was the social mobilization of a certain professional class around parochial interests which ended up being (mis)appropriated by political opportunists who seized upon an opportunity to use a crisis as a focal point for obviating the difficulties of collective action.

Long marches, shong marches. When Nawaz Sharif starts talking about the independence of the judiciary, and Imran Khan starts talking about freedom and accountability, I know I should probably just go to bed.

Mosharraf: I think if you're expecting teenage students and twenty something lawyers to launch into spectacular careers in politics, then you're expecting too much, too soon. If we aren't prepared for an intergenerational transformation, then we'll keep getting jacked up for the next dynastic fircracker in the geneological arsenal. Gracias, but no gracias.

The lawyers movement represents the activation of a new generation of politicians, if for no other reason, that its the first big movement the country's experienced since the late 1970s. Tommorrow's second tier political leadership is going to have earned its first stripes during this movement. Where I think I am willing to go, in terms of investing hope, is that first-tier leadership as we know it is in its final stages. That the students that marched with the lawyers will not only occupy tommorrow's second-tier leadership, but also the top. So I am saying dynastic politics as we know it will come to an end. When? Not for another 10 to 15 years. But its coming.

Now that doesn't mean that these folks can solve the most urgent problems Pakistan is facing. Not with ambient levels of talent they have at thier disposal. But they can learn. I'll trust a slightly dodgy lawyer over the available options in this country, any day of the week. The lawyer comes from the same place that most people who can read in this country do. Insecurity, unequal access and some semblance of linear reasonability.

Bottom line? Those that have participated in the movement are capable of linear algorithmic processing of data. They can be convinced by reason to do what is reasonable. The current elite does not share those qualities, because it maintains elite status by sustaining irrational allocations of resources and by perpetuating its irrational public discourse.

And let's not forget that the irrational public discourse is too easily projected on only the right-wing. The right wing hasn't had to come up with a new idea for three dacades, at least, because all its work is done for it by so-called seculars and progressives. Remember who the Papa Bhutto was eh? The leading pan-Islamist, nuclear prolierator supreme and the Ahmadi/Qadiani Banner-in-Cheif. Secular? Hey, if you want a cigar and a drink in Pakistan today, you don't need to go to the people's party, you can find it at any party. This isn't 1989.

Of course, I think you're right not to invest too much hope in the other parties. It isn't ideology that does them however, its incompetence. They all have the same ideology. I will say that Khan scares me the most. Fifteen years into politics and he still can't find his way around the bureacracy, the local governments, the nuts and bolts of the thaana and the kutchehri! That's an astoundingly slow learning curve. But hand to him this... he has been able to help define the shape of public discourse--for whatever its worth--from a very miniscule political platform. Ehtesab, the 2 rupee roti, the citizenship/voluntary activity bit. That's all Khan, all day.

Ahsan: I take your point that so-called seculars and progressives do the right's work for them. I've been saying for a few weeks now that there are no true liberals left in Pakistan. The old left has been co-opted by the anti-American/anti-West movement. The avowedly secular parties are more ethno-regional centric in their worldview, and choose not to define themselves on the secular/non secular axis (MQM, ANP). The Army we already know about. And mainstream politicians just find it easier to get their point across if they cloak it in the language of religion and civilizational differences. Being a liberal today in Pakistan is a very lonely occupation.

Let's move on though, and talk a little bit about foreign policy or international affairs. The Obama plan seems to be to push India to make concessions on Kashmir either as a reward for, or a nudge to, Pakistan "doing more" on its western border. As sound as this strategy is, I have my doubts about its efficacy. Indian statesmen weren't born yesterday, and they're not going to let Pakistan essentially get rewarded for supporting militancy for twenty years.

Your thoughts?

Mosharraf: India hasn't had a statesman in the mainstream since Vajpayee. And his statesmanship was throttled by the mullahs in his party. I think we will all miss Vajpayee's relatively moderate brand of Hindutva once we all have to chew on Modi for a the next several years. He's the future of the BJP and he's no statesman. And anyone who thinks Rahul Ghandi is a future stateman should stick to NASCAR. He's a future Prime Minister, sure. But even Nehruvian genius has has its genetic limits.

I think there's too much being read into the newfound congizance of Kashmir as an issue. The strategy is to bleed the pakmil of its appetite for destruction by denying legitimacy to its claims of victimhood--not to reward Pakistan. The real question isn't whether India will play ball. Deep down, India will only be too happy to agree on the LOC as an international border (the US is not going to push it any farther). The real question is whether Pakistan has had enough? My guess is not. The ideological culture of the country and the military won't allow a raindance dance at the LOC as it exists. Of course, luckily for them, the Indian establishment has the same genes. They'll be the ones that get tagged for not wanting any movement. Its a lose-lose for the people. Win-win for the establishments.

Ahsan: I see today that Pakistan has admitted to some part of the Mumbai attacks being planned on its soil. Good times. This about a week after the release of A.Q. Khan (and blaming Bangladesh, don't forget). I feel like the leadership in Pakistan right now is a little schizophrenic - at once bowing to the Ziad Hamid types and bowing to the demands of the Indian government.

Back to the Obama plan: I think it fundamentally fudges the issue of time horizons. Even if everything works perfectly from their point of view (i.e. make Pakistan less afraid of India by getting a deal on Kashmir, and thereby convince Pakistan to do more on the western border), it confuses what is a long term problem with what is an immediate problem. The threat of militancy on the western border is a real and present danger. The potential of Pakistan scaling back its security fears vis-a-vis India is, at best, a medium term proposition (perhaps a decade or two). So the first part of the equation (the final solution--less militancy on the western border) cannot be solved by the second part of the equation (the intervening variable--making kissy face with India).

Mosharraf: Interesting that in the time that we've been having this exchange, as you pointed out, Pakistan finally admitted that there may be Pakistanis in Pakistan who want to do bad things to India. And now, "Sharia" has been "restored" in Swat. I can understand why Pakistan makes so many people, so nervous. I am not so sure however that the elite that has been playing chicken with this country's future for sixty years (and only has some bruises to show for it) quite understands how nervous Pakistan is making a lot of Pakistanis. This is a critical point. The expanded universe of voice in Pakistan--that is people that can shout and make a difference--is big trouble for the elite. Since the elite is not a monolith with a defined hierarchy, their reaction time to this is going to be too slow to matter.

But that's just the hyper-optimist in me. Its ok to be cynical. The real punchline in a world of qazi courts and playing footsie and then making out with the Taliban I suppose is the WTF factor. Why did we put thousands of Pakistani soldiers in body bags, many thousands more poor citizens in graves made of the rubble of thier homes, to eventually surrender to these terrorists who had to be "defeated at all costs"? WTF.

Of course, all this global attention for Pakistan--including Obama's carrot on Kashmir--is a product of the accentuated effects of South Asian dysfunction on the rest of the world. And while the rest of the world has done its part in bringing things here. This mess is our responsibility. For sixty years, power dynamics in Pakistan have changed clothes plenty of time, but never changed at their core. This is a place where the only contract that is consistently enforced is the contract among the elite. Long after American GIs are back in sweet home Alabama, Pakistanis will be left to contend with the same threats to their lives and liberty as they always have. Pakistan was being overrun by illiteracy and the law of the jungle before 9/11, it has been the same since 9/11 and it will be the same after 9/11 slips down the depth chart of defintive global inflection points.

India's best and brightest know this. Which is why they can afford to feed Holbrooke veggie-burgers, extract some H1-B favours, and take the nuclear relationship to the next level, while firmly telling the Americans to kiss thier ass on Kashmir. At this stage, Kashmir looks like it will eventually be resolved in a manner much more Nehru than LeT. It sounds so trite, but it rings so true. Imagine all the schools and bridges that could have been built with the money Pakistan has ploughed into its lack of relationship with India.

Ahsan: On that wistful note, I'd like to thank you for your time, Mosharraf. Keep writing your always-insightful columns.