Monthly Archives: March 2011

Still tearing my hair out in frustration at media analysis of the nuclear emergency in Japan, I had word from my friend Peter David (Lexington at The Economist, and a former science writer) directing me to this blog maintained by nuclear engineering students at MIT. It’s good, and it’s worth a look. Helpful information! It brought my core temperature down a little.

But I still don’t know the answer to the question: “If everything that could go wrong does go wrong, what are we looking at?” Answering this does not require full knowledge of what’s actually happening at the plant,  which nobody, including the people on the site, appears to possess. It calls for little speculation: in the first instance, I’m not asking for a probability. (One thing we’ve learned: statements of what’s likely or unlikely in this affair need to be heavily discounted.)  I simply want to understand the outer limit of the emergency. My guess is that this knowledge would be reassuring rather than panic-inducing, but in any event it would be good to see the scenario explained.

Under the circumstances it’s wrong to single out articles that have driven me up the wall this past few days, since there are so many. With apologies, though, I cannot resist clipping this Reuters piece, Japan scrambles to pull nuclear plant back from brink. (The brink of what? That’s my question. No answer, needless to say.) The piece does actually contain some information, so thanks for that, but then it concludes:

“This is a slow-moving nightmare,” said Dr Thomas Neff, a physicist and uranium-industry analyst at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Get an expert on the phone, and make a careful note of the most useless thing he says. End your piece with that. I hereby close my collection of Triumphantly Worthless Expert Quotations. I don’t see that one being surpassed.

Like everybody else, no doubt, I am finding it difficult to pay attention to anything but the catastrophe in Japan.

Coverage of the nuclear emergency is probably as informative as it can be under the circumstances–but still I find it frustrating. Purportedly analytical accounts are muddled; obvious questions are left unresolved or unaddressed; there are inconsistencies all over the place. Much of this is unavoidable, I know, but the problem is compounded by the journalistic propensity to glide around what you don’t know or have failed to understand.

From the start of this calamity I have wanted to know, “What is the worst that can happen at these nuclear sites? Suppose everything that could go wrong does go wrong: what then?” I still don’t know the answer. In what I have read so far–dozens of articles–nobody who knows what he is talking about has spelt this out carefully.

Federal regulators and state attorneys-general are trying to reshape US policy on mortgages. About time. Policy up to now has been a shambles. It is one reason why the recovery has been so weak – and why the US housing mess is capable, even now, of snuffing out the expansion altogether.

Islamic radicalization should not be off-limits as a matter of inquiry and debate. Most critics of Peter King’s hearing have talked as though mentioning Islam and terrorism in the same sentence is bigotry in its own right–unless you hasten to include references to Oklahoma City, Jared Loughner, and right-wing extremists. This position is absurd, just as King says.

Militant Islam poses a distinctive kind of danger, and we should to be able to talk about it and look into it. This should not even need saying. I also have time for the view that leaders of the Muslim community in the US would be wise to denounce extremism more conspicuously, and be less defensive when the subject comes up (though in this, of course, they are partly at the mercy of the media).

The problem with King’s hearing is not the topic of inquiry but, first, the format–congressional hearings are often more about politicians thrusting themselves into the news and parading pre-cooked opinions than discovering new information; this one was a case in point–and, second, its chairman, King himself. This of all subjects demands moderation, dispassion and sensitivity. He was comparatively restrained today, but King is a bombast-merchant. He has said there are “too many mosques” in the US. That remark is an expression of bigotry. According to this profile by Robert Kolker, King has said more than once that extremism has spread to 80 percent of the US Muslim population, which is ridiculous. (He also has shall we say muddled views about terrorism in general. During the Troubles in Northern Ireland he regarded the IRA as freedom-fighters, and called the British government a murder machine.)

Just the kind of calm, judicious congressman you want for a job like this.

Here is a very interesting article by Joe Stiglitz, leading critic of Anglo-American capitalism and author of “Freefall: Free Markets and the Sinking of the Global Economy”, all about the miracle of Mauritius.

[T]he Mauritians have increased per capita income from less than $400 around the time of independence [in 1968] to more than $6,700 today. The country has progressed from the sugar-based monoculture of 50 years ago to a diversified economy that includes tourism, finance, textiles, and, if current plans bear fruit, advanced technology.

During my visit, my interest was to understand better what had led to what some have called the Mauritius Miracle, and what others might learn from it.

What did he conclude? He emphasises the country’s investment in education, universal health care, and limited spending on defence. Oddly enough he fails to comment on its liberal trade policies, open capital market, light-touch business regulation, and low, flat taxes. Mauritius ranks 12th out of 183 in the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom–three places behind the US, and way ahead of the next-highest-ranked country in its region (Botswana). Well, hardly worth mentioning.

He does underline one other thing:

a strong commitment to democratic institutions and cooperation between workers, government, and employers – precisely the opposite of the kind of dissension and division being engendered by conservatives in the US today.

Ouch. Point taken.

The US economy is showing signs of life but the expansion is still tentative. That is the message of the most recent economic indicators. Congress and the White House have no intention of improving the country’s prospects and might choose to make things worse. That is the message from Washington, DC.

Clive Crook’s blog

This blog is no longer updated but it remains open as an archive.

I have been the FT's Washington columnist since April 2007. I moved from Britain to the US in 2005 to write for the Atlantic Monthly and the National Journal after 20 years working at the Economist, most recently as deputy editor. I write mainly about the intersection of politics and economics.

Clive Crook’s blog: A guide

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