Free and foul speech: the Islamic uproar

As Muslims across the world protest the American-made movie trailer that ridicules Islam, the collision of values between the West and the Islamic world seems never to have been so stark. Free speech versus respect. Tolerance as opposed to ideological despotism. Openness to criticism and debate instead of muzzling.

What stance must we in journalism take on this fight? Anyone who espouses freedom of thought and expression, it would seem, cannot side with those who would suppress it. No matter how noxious or vulgar that expression is, the right of all to say what we think is fundamental for journalists. More than that, free expression is central to a democracy, a core value. The open exchange of ideas, we believe in the West, leads to progress as the best ideas win out and the weakest wither.

If Islam and the teachings of its prophet do offer the best ideas, are they not strong enough to withstand the amateurish rant of a fraudster and a few friends in California? Surely they are. Is Islam so fragile that its followers must murder Americans to defend it? Absolutely not. Are its ideas so weak that a 14-minute movie trailer can undermine it? No. And is the feeble little film really so powerful that the faithful cannot simply shrug it off?

But far more than a battle of ideas is involved here. Fouad Ajami, the Stanford academic and a Muslim himself, traces the fervor in the eruptions in the Muslim world to “a deep and enduring sense of humiliation.” In his insightful column in The Washington Post, “Why is the Arab world so easily offended?,” he traces the rise and fall of Islam as a cultural and economic force among the nations. Where adherents once dominated much of the civilized world, thriving and making huge contributions to art and science, millions now struggle in poverty, envying the West and blaming it for their sorry state. Many now crave nothing more than to move to Europe or the U.S., even as others set fire to the American flag or trample Western embassy signs.

Further, fundamentalist opportunists in places such as Egypt and Libya pounce on any opportunity to capitalize on these feelings of inadequacy and fragility. Nakoula Basseley Nakoula and his friends gave them the perfect excuse to target even an American as friendly to the Muslim world as J. Christopher Stevens, the late ambassador to Libya who aided in the work of rebels there seeking to oust a despot. “Innocence of Muslims” was a gift to Al Qaeda, the Taliban and their ilk as they seek to turn back the clock instead of embracing the possibilities for improvement of their societies in the 21st Century.

The ideas in the trailer – such as they are – certainly are obnoxious and offensive. Knowledgeable critics say they are flat wrong. But since that is so, would the piece not simply die of its own trivial weight? Is not the best response for the Islamic world simply to ignore the film, to brush it off as a piece of lint that floats momentarily onto the rich tapestry of Islamic history and belief? The Catholic Church, after all, survived intemperate artistic criticisms, such as “Piss Christ,” the 1987 photo by an American artist depicting a crucifix in urine. Judaism has survived such bogus attacks as “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” or vile marches by would-be Nazis in Skokie, Illinois.

There is nothing wrong with civil protest, even outside embassies – far removed as they may be from Hollywood. Indeed, advocates of free speech should welcome that. Bigotry needs to be countered whenever it arises and the bigotry of this film must be condemned. So, too, must the foulness of anti-Semites be opposed. And anti-American sentiments must be countered wherever they arise. But there’s no excuse, of course, for killing. And the answer to free speech should just be more free and better speech, eloquence instead of ignorance. Certainly, it should not be violence.

Still, the danger of the Muslim world erupting in such passion against the trailer is that it gives the filmmaker a far bigger stage than he deserves. The fervid reaction launches a film few would have heard of into superstardom. The same was true of the anti-Islamic Florida pastor, Terry Jones, who advocated burning copies of the Quran. Such men and their “work” don’t deserve the fame the protesters confer upon them. The best response, perhaps, is no response. Instead of burning flags and scaling embassy walls, why not educate the West on how the anti-Islamic ideas are baseless?

Ideas matter, of course. Plenty of wrongheaded ones have led societies astray – just look at the legacy of Osama bin Laden, Adolf Hitler and their like. But it’s only by letting ideas compete freely, by letting people shop in the intellectual marketplace, that the best ideas come to the fore and the weakest die.

This is, of course, a recent notion. Not so long ago, people in the West could lose their lives for blasphemy. Our current view of the value of free expression hasn’t taken root in the Islamic world yet – and it may never do so. But, as Ajami sagely writes, “Modernity requires the willingness to be offended.” Much to the regret of the West and to the disservice of the Arab world, he says the heartland of Islam lacks that willingness.

Last night, my wife and I saw “Ai Wewei: Never Sorry,” the astute documentary by Alison Klayman about a courageous artist’s struggle for freedom of expression in China. Ai does things the authorities cannot abide, such as producing a video in which a string of people, including himself, say “Fuck you, Motherland.” He embarrasses police who assault him by filming them. He is subjected to constant surveillance and winds up arrested and detained for 81 days. His art studio in Shanghai, which officials once encouraged, is destroyed. He’s a thumb in the eye to those who would suppress free expression.

Freedom of expression must be cherished and protected. Ai’s criticisms are powerful and important. The California fraudster’s are not. In each case, however, totalitarians cannot be allowed to throttle their voices. Let them speak. Counter them, if necessary, or heed them. Ignore them if that’s appropriate. In the end, a critic’s barbs will stick only if they deserve to.

Occupy Beijing?

"Absolutely support the American people’s great ‘Occupy Wall Street revolution’’ - ChinaHush.com

The Occupy Wall Street movement is fascinating people in China. The media here — at least the English-language outlets — have been filled with coverage ever since the movement started gathering steam. My students at Tsinghua, too, seem intrigued, if puzzled, by the whole business.

For some, the idea of people taking to the streets all across America to question capitalism, the Wall Street power structure and the Man, in general, may confirm a Chinese idea that the U.S., in historic decline, is rife with instability and confusion. Babel on the other side of the planet, perhaps, and a far cry from stability-loving China. The heavy coverage may also serve to reassure the Chinese about their health and continuing growth, as the one big economy still perking along.

CCTV, Channel 24, the English-language arm of the state broadcasting service, has aired repeated broadcasts about the marches. Correspondents on the ground in NYC have interviewed demonstrators. A group there sporting a Communist banner got some short play, unsurprisingly. And CCTV even dedicated a big chunk of a regular debate and discussion program called Dialogue to the demos, linking the protests to marches and occasional violence in Europe and Greece, and thus painting a worrisome picture of chaos outside the comfortably safe borders of China.

It would be wrong, however, to look on the coverage as a heavy-handed bid to soothe Chinese about the superiority of their system. For one thing, the talking heads on Dialogue – an American prof from the New School in NYC, a German from the Imperial College in London and a Chinese international-relations scholar from Tsinghua University in Beijing – made it clear that the dynamics of the Eurodemos and the U.S. affairs are quite different. For another, it has been repeatedly pointed out that the demonstrators have yet to cohere around a single agenda beyond their furor at lingering high unemployment.

Washington Post

Moreover, some of the discussion has been surprisingly astute. For instance, one of the folks argued that things would be a lot worse if not for the bank bailout that protesters have pilloried Obama over. And that was the Chinese fellow from Tsinghua! The Chinese academics, particularly those who have studied in the West, are a sharp bunch, not to be underestimated. Certainly, they aren’t faulting capitalism as a concept; they just want to do better at it than the West.

Still, the subheads that the producers at CCTV dropped in under the speakers were, well, entertaining. Things such as “problems within the capitalist system” and “rich get richer, poor get poorer.”

As for my students, they have been mystified and entertained. One, who studied for a while in Florida, maintained that the demonstrations suggest that the U.S. has a serious problem. Another, however, said he found the business amusing, noting it’s the kind of thing that would never happen in China. Certainly, the government here would never permit the raft of videos on the Net agitating for the movement, as has happened in the U.S. He said he was once tasked by his media employer to cover a demo here and police broke it up before he could get there. That sort of thing is just not done in China.

There has been much discussion, too, about how the demos seem to be a left-wing response to the Tea Party. That idea has come up on TV and was suggested by an American visitor, an economist, who was kind enough to visit my class in business and economic reporting this week. He thought it perfectly natural for young people, especially, to do this sort of thing in the U.S.

RedState

If the Chinese media have paid so much attention because the demos offer comfort that the Chinese system is superior, the editors may be making a mistake. It’s possible that some Chinese see the demos not as a signs of decay but rather as evidence of a robust democracy debating its future in civil, at times carnival-like, ways. What’s more, China has big and growing problems with income inequality, soaring housing prices and food-price inflation – all of which could indeed put Chinese into the streets, if they had the right to do that. My students recently have been reporting on major unemployment and underemployment issues among millions of college graduates, as well as among impoverished migrants from the countryside.

Indeed, there was a supportive demonstration in Zhengzhou, the capital city of Henan Province. The website, ChinaHush.com, reported that the news was removed from a lot of Chinese mainstream media sites but continues to pop up on various Internet forums.

Might the Chinese follow the coverage of the U.S. and get a touch envious? Is the freedom to speak one’s mind, to make one’s grievances known, an appealing thing? Is influencing your country’s politics – proving that the right wing isn’t the only game in town – so bad?

China: land of contradictions

As we walked to lunch with faculty and a couple administrators the other day, we passed demonstrators holding a sit-in outside the Tsinghua administrative offices. Their placards told of how they wanted more money for the destruction of their homes, which was planned to make way for faculty housing. Our hosts, chagrined by the protest, nonetheless noted that this was an example of free speech. These people, it seemed, had a right to make their grievances known.

It seemed a lot like home. But, then at lunch, we got some friendly advice from a Party official who is a fellow academic. Be mindful of what we say in class, we were counseled. Chinese students, especially those from the countryside, give teachers enormous deference in this Confucian society. Moreover, with social media alive and well in China – through local knockoffs of Facebook and Twitter – anything we say may find an audience well beyond the classroom. Privately, say what you want. Publicly, be discreet. There’s a difference in China between the private and public realms.

We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto. But, what a perplexing country this is. On the one hand, it has embraced so much about the West. Just look at the soaring skylines in cities such as Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. And consider the recurring 10 percent-plus annual growth rates that put the U.S. and the rest of the economically turbulent West to shame. The Chinese are setting the pace for the world.

School of Economics and Management

Their passion for capitalism is obvious. The school of economics and management here is a towering modern compound fronting on the strip of stunning buildings that adorn a stretch near the main gate. Inside one of the several buildings, portraits of Nobel Prize-winning economists make a long line in the lobby – seemingly, all are Americans, including New York Times columnist and Princeton economist Paul Krugman. By contrast, the university’s school of Marxism is tucked off in a less impressive quarter of campus, housed in a small, older building. I’ve heard Marxism is regarded as a matter of philosophy, nothing quite so practical as economics and management. Certainly, there’s no doubt who these folks want their students to look up to.

Merit is also prized here, whether in school or in government. To join the Communist Party, our colleague explained, one must be in the top of one’s class academically. The Party is for the elite, those who can lead the country, and getting through the application process is tough and time-consuming. Only about six percent of the 1.3 billion people in the country qualify for Party membership (a surprising share, even if that amounts to 80 million folks).

Indeed, the Party leadership is composed of practical men with impressive academic backgrounds. Some have graduated from Tsinghua, with degrees in subjects such as water engineering. The current president, Hu Jintao, is an alum. The children of some of these men now study at Western institutions such as Harvard. These are bright people who, it seems, take seriously the need to intelligently manage a country where vast numbers still live in poverty a world apart from privileged city-dwellers. They seem to want to spread the wealth and manage the growth of their country well.

And yet, there is a limit to how far western approaches go here. I bumped up against it the other day, when I wanted to shoot some photos at a central athletic field on campus. Large numbers of students paraded about the sprawling field in military uniforms. Military training, a student here told me, is required of all freshmen. Indeed, days earlier I saw similar troops of students marching around campus and singing songs of loyalty to the nation. It was reminiscent of years ago in the U.S., when students had to go through ROTC training on many campuses.

Struck me as interesting. But a fellow in a black athletic outfit thought otherwise. “Delete,” he told me politely — but firmly — as he appeared out of nowhere. This was arguably a public place, and certainly would have been considered so in the U.S. Further, he was not in uniform and didn’t say who he was. But I was in no position to argue. I am, after all, a guest in this country and must behave as one. I certainly don’t wish to offend my hosts, whose graciousness has gone above and beyond.

School of Marxism

Odd thing is, other military events on campus seem to be fair game. For instance, I was able days before to photograph a flag-raising ceremony conducted by young people in front of the main administration building. Chinese people were similarly taking photos. That, it seemed, was acceptable even as the larger parade was not.

So, every once in a while, I expect I’ll run into reminders that the rules are different here. As long as I am a guest, I will comply. Anything else would be ungracious, to say the least.

Food bills rising? Let’s blame Wall Street.

Wonder why prices for food and other commodities are higher now than they were a decade ago? Forget the rise in population to nearly 7 billion souls. Disregard the astonishing expansion of economies in China and elsewhere. No, it’s the sinister folks at Goldman Sachs who have made wheat so costly.

We know this thanks to Foreign Policy, published by the Slate unit of the Washington Post Co. The revelation appeared April 27, under the headline “How Goldman Sachs Created the Food Crisis.” The subhed: “Don’t blame American appetites, rising oil prices, or genetically modified crops for rising food prices. Wall Street’s at fault for the spiraling cost of food.”

I share this because I continue to be amazed at how those evil folks, speculators, keep popping up as piñatas for politicians, conspiracy theorists and the ill-informed. Even smart people believe this pap. Witness President Obama’s recent attack on speculators for boosting gas prices, a fresh assault that includes a federal investigation. Clearly, the appeal of a bogus idea can be irresistible.

In the FP piece, Frederick Kaufman argues that the Goldman Sachs Commodity Index lays at the center of a nasty web of big-money players who have cast farmers into near-irrelevancy. Even “bona fide” big players –- including corporations that buy and sell cereals for use –- have been sidelined by speculators, he tells us. The speculator –- who “neither produces nor consumes corn or soy or wheat,” and thus is evil by definition, has risen to be a menace, Kaufman suggests. Speculators now vastly outnumber the legit folks thanks to the GSCI and the popularity of investment products based on the index.

To market-watchers, these ideas may pluck familiar strings. Kaufman sang the tune in a July 2010 Harper’s cover story, making few friends at Goldman. Steve Strongin, the firm’s head of Global Investment Research, fired back at the time: “Long-term trends, including increased meat consumption by the growing middle class in the emerging markets and the increased use of biofuels in the developed markets, have created a backdrop for global food shortages and, as a result, millions are left desperately exposed to the vagaries of the weather for their survival. It is a shame that the plight of these millions appears to merit a cover story in your magazine only when it is exploited as a pretext to launch unsubstantiated attacks against the financial industry.”

As his latest effort shows, however, Kaufman remains unbowed.

“Today, bankers and traders sit at the top of the food chain – the carnivores of the system, devouring everyone and everything below,” writes Kaufman, an associate professor of English and Journalism who can turn a phrase well. “Near the bottom toils the farmer. For him, the rising price of grain should have been a windfall, but speculation has also created spikes in everything the farmer must buy to grow his grain – from seed to fertilizer to diesel fuel. At the very bottom lies the consumer.”

Further, he suggests, people across the world are starving thanks to this system. Some 250 million people joined the ranks of the hungry in 2008, bringing the total of the world’s “food insecure” to 1 billion, a number never seen before. This, it appears, is the fault of the speculative fury that followed creation of the GSCI in 1991 and, worse, deregulation of futures in 1999. Prices have soared thanks to the rush of money, including a lot of dumb money, in the markets.

Finally, the author argues that the evil geniuses at Goldman Sachs rigged the game by devising the index as a long-only product. “Every time the due date of a long-only commodity index futures contract neared, bankers were required to ‘roll’ their multi-billion dollar backlog of buy orders over into the next futures contract, two or three months down the line,” he says. Evidently, none could ever cash out their stakes, a notion that may surprise those who have done so.

Kaufman offers a few nuggets of data — sort of — to buttress his argument. Mainly, he zeroes in on 2008 when commodities were lofted in a short-lived bubble. Hard spring wheat, usually $4-$6 a bushel, topped $25 at one point, he says. And he notes that the worldwide price of food rose 80% from 2005 to 2008 and has kept rising, though he doesn’t say what is being measured as food or who is doing the measuring.

But all that is beside the point. Kaufman omits the inconvenient truth that in the last decade prices have fallen, as well as risen, in commodities and commodity-linked investments. The iShares S&P GSCI Commodity-Index Trust jumped from about $50 a share in July 2006 to above $76 in June 2008, but plunged below $23 by February 2009 before clawing its way back to about $40 now. The wheat he refers to now fetches about $9 a bushel at the Minneapolis Grain Exchange, a far cry from $25. Long only or not, investors have made or lost money as prices roller-coastered. This escalator doesn’t have only an up button.

Certainly it’s possible that the surge of money into commodity-related products has made pricing more volatile. The growth of buyers and sellers in any market might do that. But, could they force an unbroken upward climb detached from basic supply and demand issues? That would ignore the global surge in demand for food and commodities. Moreover, it would be blind to drought, blight, excessive wetness at planting time and other weather-related factors — some of which figured into the February 2008 surge in wheat prices. Blame the billions of hungry folks out there, not Wall Street’s thousands.

Of course, Kaufman’s logical flaws don’t end there. His fingering Goldman’s index as the root of evil, especially because of its long-only nature, is at best silly. Plenty of other vehicles for commodity investing beckon. “Just because you cannot short through this fund does not mean that you cannot short elsewhere nor that you cannot sell your shares once you think prices have peaked,” says Craig R. MacPhee, an economist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln who specializes in global development and trade. “There may be speculative buying that drives up prices at least temporarily, but I doubt that the GSCI has anything to do with it.”

Goldman isn’t taking Kaufman’s broadside laying down. Managing director Lucas Van Praag in a May 3 rebuttal argues that the writer “does not present any credible evidence that commodity index investing is responsible for the rise in food prices. Serious inquires, such as one conducted by the OECD in the wake of the 2008 price spike, have concluded that ‘index funds did not cause a bubble in commodity futures prices.’ Rather than destabilizing futures markets, commodity index funds provide them with a stable pool of capital, improving farmers’ ability to insure themselves against the risks inherent in agricultural prices. This, in turn, can allow farmers to produce more food at a lower cost.”

And, by the way, Goldman has not owned its index since 2007, when S&P acquired it. Goldman’s folks noted this in 2010 and reiterated it again in the rebuttal.

Regrettably, facts sometimes do get in the way of a good story. And suspicion of the futures markets may be inevitable. Farmers have cast a wary eye on Chicago sharpies for decades, resenting them for seemingly setting prices growers had to settle for. Never mind the underlying supply and demand curve or the combat among shorts and longs at the exchanges.

Today, most people don’t have a clue what goes on in these markets. Players who rely on opaque math and hunches are likely disinclined to share the secrets of their successes (or failures). And, yes, occasionally bad actors do try to game the markets. But if the folks at Goldman could pull off half the manipulation ill-informed writers suspect them of, they’d be a heck of lot richer than they already are and that’s saying something.

Driven to distraction in the academy

Here are a few surprising things about life in the academy. Grading is nearly a fulltime job, distraction is the steady state of things, and knowing whether your students have learned anything is a lot easier than proving it.

On the first point, there’s never enough time during the work week to do a good job of grading and critiquing student work. Now I know why elementary-school teachers spend good chunks of their weekends cozying up to student papers.

It’s a matter of adjusting your calendar. I’ve taken to giving my kids deadlines at 5 p.m. on Fridays. That way I figure I may get their work back to them in timely fashion. I’m not whining about this (though it taxes my wife’s patience). But few folks outside the academy understand this. All they see are summers off and a few lectures a week. Would that it were only so!

Grading, by the way, may be the most challenging part of the job. In journalism instruction this amounts to editing a lot of stories every week. That means finding holes, looking for the great quotes, checking for the sound structure, the seductive lede, solid nut graf, good kicker, etc., even as you suggest — but avoid dictating — rewrites. By comparison, my editing buds at Bloomberg Businessweek work intensely on two or three pieces a week – including takeouts – which now sounds like a day at the beach.

Many of the papers, moreover, are the work of, um, loving little hands that have a long way to go. They’re novices and that’s why they’re in school. Our job is to be tough but encouraging, which is a challenging balancing act. I had to give a 22 to a piece the other day and offer a detailed criticism to explain the poor grade. But will that student come back with something better or shrug it off as a blown assignment? So far, on her first rewrite, she’s done mostly the latter. That led to me kicking the piece back to her and suggesting she take a closer look at all those margin notes I made. We’ll see how it turns out soon.

Taking a hard line with students isn’t easy. Some of my colleagues make Marine drill sergeants look like pushovers. One started a basic reporting class this semester with a full classroom of students and is down to nine. The kids who couldn’t handle the tough grading washed out; they must hope they’ll take the class again with someone they expect will go easier or they’re just leaving journalism. Another colleague who has taught for a couple decades can count those he failed on one hand with several fingers to spare. The Gentleman’s C was a saving grace for many, I suspect.

I figure there’s got to be a middle-ground, a golden mean. Sure, most of our kids aren’t ready yet to handle the growling city editors and magazine section editors I ran across. And some never will be. But I figure part of my job is to make them ready for that. And I don’t have to be an SOB to get them ready for SOBs. I just have to point out the flaws in their work and grade them accordingly, showing them how to make fixes. They’ll learn whether journalism is for them even without a high washout rate, I figure.

Indeed, some of the work that the kids do can make your day. I live for those moments when a piece comes in that almost ready for prime time. One fellow this week did a story comparing drinking-related crime in Lincoln with other places, quoting the local police chief and making it all timely by talking about a recent expansion of the drinking day to 2 a.m., an hour more than before. Good stats, disturbing records of car accidents with booze involved. The piece is solid.

Other students have done pieces that surprise and delight. One looked into a Northwestern University study that showed that religious people tend toward obesity. She looked at local churches and how they’re trying to foster fitness among their members. Another student looked at a new gender gap, the imbalance between women and men in high school graduation rates and college attendance (57% girls on campus nationally and in Nebraska). Such intriguing efforts can make grading far more palatable, even on weekends.

Part of the reason there are not enough hours in the work week for the grade book is that every day is a laundry list of distractions. Some days, this is great. It reminds me of John Lennon’s line from “Beautiful Boy” that life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans. There are, for instance, the kids who walk in to talk about their schoolwork (a pause that refreshes because it’s fun to help them iron out assignments and ideas). Our policy at Nebraska’s J School is no set office hours, but an open door whenever we’re not in class. That can mean many surprise visits.

Then there’s email, that modern scourge. The damn computer delivers something else to deal with every few minutes, it seems. And each note requires a prompt response, of course. I do respond quickly to the dean’s notes, I must say. My wife and kids, too, get priority. For others, it’s a challenge.

It reminds me of a high school history teacher who taught us time-management long before Day-Timers made a bundle on the concept. Make a to-do list early in the week, update it often and hope you’ll have checks next to most items by week’s end. Works pretty well, though mine seems to expand every day. I have found that I can’t abide unchecked items, which means a good many-mile run each morning to work off the self-imposed pressure. I hope my kids do something similar and figure the ones who meet deadlines must be doing so.

Finally, there’s another area of academics that is a real challenge. It’s the proof of success. “Assessment,” a term of little endearment, isn’t easy.

Let me spell that out. Take my biz-econ journalism students, for instance. I know they are learning something. They knew nothing about publicly traded companies, earnings, Form 10Ks and 10Qs, etc. They couldn’t write about a company’s quarterly results before spending a couple weeks on the topic (indeed, developing a grasp of income statements, balance sheets, stock market performances, etc.) Hell, they didn’t know the difference between Nasdaq and the NYSE, or the many different animals in the stock and commodities exchange worlds, before we dealt with all that. It’s clear they’ve learned something.

But how much did they learn? What will they take away? How can I prove to outsiders, especially tenure-review committee members, that the kids have moved from Point A to Point B? Even defining those points, as well as measuring the gap between them, is a challenge. Lots of documents. Lots of rubrics and graphs.

Fortunately, at Nebraska some of us have help. A group of us – mostly tenure-track newbies – are working on a peer-teaching experience this semester that is aimed at getting at such answers. We met on Saturday this weekend (no time during the work week for such things) to draft a preliminary version of a statement aimed at measuring our progress.

I picked three students – one star, one middler and one challenged student. I monitor their progress via reporting and writing assignments and tests. Will it become clear that these kids have grown between January and May? Don’t know. Certainly, they’ve learned something, but quantifying and demonstrating their achievement isn’t as simple as recording how they’ve done on an end-of-term test – it doesn’t work that way in journalism or other writing fields.

For folks in the teaching game for most of their careers, a lot of this is workaday stuff. It’s routine. For me, it’s all new. I’d like to think I’m doing A work. But between the grading challenges, the many distractions and the challenge of measuring it all, it’s damn hard to prove that. There are many days when it makes running a national correspondent system for a magazine look easy.

Pistol-packing teachers: now that’s an idea

When a Nebraska state legislator introduced a bill the other day that would open the way for teachers and administrators in schools in the state, including universities, to carry concealed guns, I’m not sure he fully appreciated how visionary the measure really was. It is, without doubt, one of the most far-sighted, politically astute and economically savvy pieces of legislation ever to be floated in Lincoln, Neb.

This bill, sure to be resisted by those blinkered pantywaists in Omaha and the university community in Lincoln, could transform the state’s economy and put Nebraska on the global map. It ought to be cheered from the Iowa border to Colorado. Let’s examine the implications.

First, school districts and the university are straining under budget pressures these days. If teachers and administrators could tuck Glocks under their vests, legions of security guards could be let go. Indeed, the campus police force at UNL and every other university campus in the state could be disbanded. When every academic is packing, criminals are sure to stay out of the classrooms, dormitories and poorly lit passageways traversed by coeds late at night. Think of the massive and instantaneous budget impact. Billion-dollar state budget shortfall? Gone in a flash of gunpowder!

Consider, too, the intellectual and financial benefits. If freshly armed professors chose to settle their disputes like men, instead of in those insufferably genteel discussions at faculty meetings, we’d have a lot fewer faculty members after a while. Odds are, too, that the survivors would be the brainier right-thinking types. Many of the rest are probably tenured, so this move would deal with that problem nicely, too. We’d save a bundle on inflated salaries and wind up with quick-thinking profs who have their heads on screwed on properly.

Sure, there could be some minor problems. Teachers drawing down on one another outside crowded classrooms or in faculty dining areas might be a bit disruptive, at times messy. But students adapt to just about anything and we do have janitors for a reason. Let’s not let such small issues hobble us.

Politically, moreover, this is a brilliant move. A bill like this forces legislators to put their convictions out on display for everyone to see. Not sure if your legislator is a Second Amendment champion? This’ll out him. And this way, we could rid ourselves of the overeducated urbanites who hide behind those wrong-headed complaints about gun violence and crime. You know, many of them are following secret agendas inspired by Moscow and Beijing to disarm Americans anyway. This bill will eventually force them out as voters see their true colors.

The measure is also an economic stroke of genius. When Nebraska becomes a place where real Americans can stride around with holsters heavy and hearts full, more Americans will want to visit. Eventually, many will move here. Our kind of people will desert those decadent and dangerous cities on the coasts and flock to the rolling prairie, where they can fire at will at anything that disturbs them. Our population will swell, first with tourists and then with permanent newcomers.

Don’t underestimate those tourists, either. This is Nebraska, after all – a place where six-shooters on both hips were once commonplace. With no trouble at all, we could recreate the glory days of the Nebraska Territory. People would wander the streets even in places like Lincoln looking for low-down varmints to eradicate. Our bars could reinstall those nifty swinging panels on their front doors. Men could play poker, curse, drink and spit a lot while busty women saunter around in fluffy skirts. Think of the possibilities of evoking a time when real freedom existed in the state and our country, when we didn’t rely on slick lawyers and worry about Miranda Rights and such.

What, you say, this is supposed to be the 21st Century? Gunfights have gone the way of player pianos.  Now, we have laws and police and courts and such. Poppycock. It’s weaponry we all need. The bad guys are packing, after all, and the only way for decent folk to counter that is to carry even bigger guns. Let’s hope our legislators don’t stop at concealed handguns, but let us have assault weapons in our elementary, high schools and colleges. With any luck, someone clever on campus could develop a concealable bazooka – why are we paying those academics anyway, if not to come up with nifty new things? Indeed, Nebraska could become a Silicon Valley for weapons-makers.

But, really, what we should hope for is the ability to drive tanks to campus. Legalize armored personnel carriers and you’ll really scare off the bad element. They would also guarantee all of us right-thinking folks good parking spaces.

This bill, put forward in the wake of a tragic high school shooting by a mentally troubled student, is certainly evidence that some legislative leaders in the state have been bred and reared right – isn’t it? Then again, it could be a sign of maybe a little too much inbreeding in somebody’s family.

Luddites revisited — attacking high-frequency traders, speculators and assorted other market “vipers”

Andrew Jackson, the country’s seventh president, was famous for railing against the financiers of the early 1800s. They speculated on “the breadstuffs of the country,” he warned. “Should I let you go on, you will ruin 50,000 families and that will be my sin! You are a den of vipers and thieves. I intend to rout you out and by the eternal God, I will rout you out.”

The quote, a favorite of bloggers who fret about plots to establish a new world order and such, would be at home today in the superheated arguments over high-frequency trading. The latest diatribe, I’m sad to say, comes from a dear friend and former colleague at Bloomberg Businessweek. Peter Coy writes, “The bigger the financial sector, the more dangerous it becomes.” He bemoans the flood of smart people going into the business, noting that a quarter of Harvard’s brainiacs in the early 2000s were drawn into investment banking and like fields. And he complains about banks “cranking up their trading operations in a way that imperils the financial system once again.”

His indictment, based on the May 6 flash crash, is headlined “What’s the Rush?” And his subhed warns “The American financial system is erratic and voracious, and keeps score in milliseconds. Here’s how to rein in the beast.” Among his prescriptions: a transactions tax of a few cents per $100 to “throw sand into the gears of high-frequency trading,” higher margin and collateral requirements, and steps such as new taxes to reduce corporate debt (on the idea that we’re being assailed by waves of “debt-fueled speculation.”)

Oh, come now, Peter. Let’s dial it down a bit. First, while the Great Recession was in part the fault of Wall Street, it was not a high-frequency phenomenon. Rather, we can blame bad securitization practices, flawed housing policies in Washington, poor market oversight and a raft of other well-documented problems. Superfast trading may have helped stocks crater, but it was not the force that drove them down.

Yes, one must admit that May 6 was not a good day for the high-frequency set. No matter how short-lived, the $800 billion plunge in the value of U.S. stocks that day was worrisome. Stocks such as Accenture slipped to a penny from $40 (before bouncing back) in trading patches as short as eight seconds. Clearly, something was amiss in the superfast computers at the likes of Getco.

But let’s keep a few things in perspective. First, after going haywire the market did correct itself. Prices came back, in most cases rapidly. The Dow lost 1,138.69 points from its high in crazed intraday trading on May 6, but closed just 341.9 points down, and regained all that and then some by May 10. Erratic? No doubt. Voracious. Okay, but when have traders been anything but?

Let’s concede that there’s something bizarre about high-frequency trading. Its relationship to real value in stocks is remote at best. So, too, is its connection to fundamentals such as corporate strategy, earnings power, savvy management. All that good stuff that financial journalists, MBAs and CEOs – and maybe even the odd stockbroker — prize is a few solar systems away from the zippy stock-swapping at Hard Eight Futures, Quantlab Financial and such. Those guys, snapping to the beat of their own algorithms, don’t give a hoot about such things. It’s all numbers, bro.

Let’s concede, too, that the liquidity the HFT pack supposedly brings is an illusion. It is most likely gone when most needed. The simile Peter uses – “like a swimming pool that dries up just as you jump off the high dive” – is apt (hat’s off to his wordsmithing). It’s hard to see just what value the high-freqs bring to anyone but themselves.

But, so what? Speculators, those oft-reviled folks who put the zing in stock markets, have always been in the game for the gamble. They see Wall Street as a massive roulette wheel and believe that any way they can tilt the spin to their favor – legally – is fair play. In an odd way, they are cousins to technical analysts who have long played markets free of the burden of fundamentals. Are we to ban the technical folk because their charts are more like astrology than investment? They, too, are an odd subculture of market players whose powers over stock movements one could decry.

Surely, there needs to be policing to make sure high-freqs don’t misuse the power they have to move markets. They do swap millions of shares in ridiculously short periods of times, all but blind to fundamental values. At times, they account for disturbingly high amounts of volume. If they intentionally – or through glitches – knock stocks down to absurd levels to profiteer in some market-cornering way, they need to be rapped hard for that. Fines, perhaps, or suspensions of trading privileges could be used to rein them in.

But imposing transactions taxes or worse seems like overkill. Such steps would penalize all players for the perfidy of a few. Let’s use the scalpel instead of the meat-axe and target the bad boys, not just the folks looking for an edge of a few milliseconds on the next guy.

By the way, it’s passably ironic that Peter’s employer, Bloomberg, as well as Dow Jones and other data-providers are tripping over themselves to serve up market data ever more quickly to the high-freq bunch. Some go so far as to rent space to traders — at premium prices — so they can house their computers cheek-by-jowl with providers’ machines and save milliseconds of transmission time. What these providers know, just as traders do, is that timely information is still everything in this game.

Every technological advance that changes the playing field makes folks nervous. Luddism is a natural reaction. Moreover, the markets have long been the playground of innovators and, as a consequence, the targets of critics. In 1887 the head of the Chicago Board of Trade forcibly removed telegraph gear from the floor of the CBOT because he couldn’t abide the electronic links to notorious Chicago bucket shops, as recounted by Rutgers historian David Hochfelder. One NYSE broker in 1889 complained that the “indiscriminate distribution of stock quotations to every liquor-saloon and other places has done much to interfere with business.”

We may not like the high-speed folks. We may deride them as little more than turbocharged gamblers, as Rain Man-like idiot savants unfairly using their powers to enrich themselves while adding nothing to the game. But they will be players so long as there’s money to be made. We can take the profit out if they don’t play by the rules (and, by the way, maybe some of those smart Harvard types in finance can cook up better rules to keep market ripples from becoming tsunamis). Let’s not, however, make life onerous for everyone in the process.

Karaganda & Dolinka street scenes

A half-hour’s drive outside the regional center, a town called Karaganda, sits Dolinka, a hardscrabble village that once was a key part of the KarLag system. The KarLag was the Karaganda portion of the notorious GuLag camp network that once dotted the backwaters of the USSR. At its peak, the KarLag was home to 75,000 exiles, people imprisoned at various times from 1931 to the 1960s. Now, Dolinka exists as a collection of rough shed-type houses and former KarLag barracks and buildings. In it serves as a memorial to that dark era in Kazakhstan’s history.

We met a woman whose parents were sent here — her father because he was a German in the Ukraine and Stalin in WWII saw Germans as a Fifth Column, and her mother because, at 18, she told someone German sewing machines were better than Russian ones. That apparently unpatriotic sentiment earned her five years in prison.

The photos of a developed town below, including the towering Lenin, are from Karaganda. In a sign of how times have changed, a headquarters of Arcelor Mittal, the world’s biggest steelmaker, sits at the top of the street that is home to the Lenin statue and its logo looms high above Lenin. Mittal is very active in Kazakhstan. The photos with a ramshackle look, including shots of videographer Megan Plouzek and photographer Megan Nichols, are from the rural village of Dolinka. Click on each photo to see it in full.

Images of Karaganda

Karaganda is a fascinating place:

Kazakhstan — Underexposed by Design

Fearlessness is helpful in a journalist. For photojournalists – especially those working abroad – it is mandatory. This is becoming clearer every day here in Kazakhstan, a place where cameras seem as welcome as American robber-barons would have been in Moscow in 1917.

Our photojournalism students are having their mettle tested here. Repeatedly, as they try to shoot in seemingly public places, they are waved off. Scary-looking security guards pop out of buildings, flailing their arms and jabbering away in Russian or Kazakh to tell them “no pictures.” The other day, as all eight students and I approached an indoor market area, a guard radioed to a colleague perched on a rooftop high above us. Roofman formed X signs with his arms to make it clear that no snapping was allowed. And all we wanted was lunch!

Fortunately, the students are rising to the challenge. They are using friendly smiles, charm and a certain fearlessness to disarm reluctant subjects and persuade them they mean no harm. Yesterday, as Patrick Breen was shooting fortune-tellers near the Green Market he managed to stave off some character who was accusing him and Elizabeth Gamez of being from the FBI and somehow helping foment a Kyrgyzstan-style revolt. They also persuaded a fortune-teller to let Patrick photograph her (in a scarf above) even though many of her colleagues protested the attention. (Patrick’s fortune looks bright, by the way, she told him).

People do usually welcome our students once they understand what they’re up to. With the help of one of our guides, Travis Beck got one of the photos attached here at a “family home,” a kind of orphanage located in Talgar, 20 kilometers east of Almaty. Director Eskozhina Tuyak, smiling over the bread, was happy to tell him about the place – called “Nur,” Kazakh for sunlight – which houses some 66 college students, some married couples and others. Some 110 people aged 4-25 live at the place, which Tuyak started in 1998 by selling her personal apartment. She worked in the state’s ministry of education for 43 years.

This is a country of many contradictions. On the one hand, people could not be more hospitable. Our waitress in an Internet coffeeshop, for instance, went out of her way yesterday to help us get a ride to our next appointments, visits to the Internews press-advocacy group and the Kazakh Stock Exchange. And folks there, similarly gracious, helped us get back on an exchange bus. We wander about at will, with no one holding us back or shadowing us. Travis was also able to photograph a group of children at play, below.

On the other hand, it’s a place where security concerns loom large, often pointlessly so. The hostility to cameras, for example, is widespread. Signs in restaurants bar photography. People in cafes gesture “no” with their hands and shake their heads when our students point cameras at them. No photographs are permitted, we were told, during trading hours at the stock exchange – only shots of the empty trading floor after hours.

Theft is not uncommon, we’re told. Don’t hand your cameras over to anyone to shoot your picture because they’ll take a flier with your gear. And yet, the common way of getting around is taking what our kids call “random cabs,” standing in the street and holding your hand low until some random person picks you up and you negotiate a ride around the city – always under 500 tengey (about $3.25). It’s common for women to accept such rides well into the evenings, and we took a couple random cabs yesterday.

It’s as if there’s a blend of Central Asian tribal hospitality and Soviet-style state paranoia. Since the country was a part of the USSR until the early 1990s and remains heavily Russified, worries about security and a need for control seem to be woven into the cultural DNA. Why does our nearby indoor supermarket have three guards, one stationed near the entrance and two just outside the cash register area, even as one or two more stand sentry at the mall entrance? Why do buildings under construction need guards in their lobbies? Why do police cruise the streets at night, pulling people over for U turns on deserted stretches of road or checking IDs? And why is Google’s eblogger seemingly jammed?

Certainly, security worries are a big part of the American experience, especially since 9/11. Think about how guards now roam with abandon across all areas of American life and security has become a huge industry, going far beyond the airports. New Yorkers are considering putting virtually every street under surveillance. And plenty of American institutions, such as corporations and government bodies, bar press photography on their premises unless it’s under tight control. Here, though, it’s security on steroids, whether justified or not, and without the newest technology.

Another thing that has struck us is the lack of homeless people. This plague, rife in American and European cities alike, seems not to be an issue here in Almaty. We have seen none. Partly, we’re told, this is because people are family oriented here and take care of their own. Partly it may be because mentally incompetent people are confined by the state, as they once were in the U.S. There are a few scattered beggars – see Patrick’s photo of one unfortunate footless man – but no bedrolls in the parks or people pushing grocery carts. Poverty is an issue, to be sure, but its human face in the city seems less obvious.

So I must admire our student photographers. They are managing through these challenges, finding fresh ways to show life in this fascinating society. Our work, of course, should be helpful to the place, as we tell readers about how ordinary Kazakhs go about their days – whether they run apple orchards and brokerage operations or pray in the mosque or, as in Patrick’s photo below, play with pigeons.

As they rove around, cameras in hand, the students are surmounting all sorts of obstacles. Language difficulties, transportation challenges and persuasion of reluctant sources. It all demands a bit of nerve, and they are summoning it in spades.