Sunday 31 May 2009

Responses to 9/11

Richard Clarke deserves thanks for speaking out to correct the historical and moral perspective of the aftermath of 9/11 in his Op Ed today in the Washington Post The Trauma of 9/11 Is No Excuse. His candour and reminder that some principles are meant to be enduring are of critical value in an age where the political spin and historical amnesia dominate.

The true costs of the US response to 9/11 have yet to be calculated. Today, we are neither losing nor winning two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, at tremendous human and financial cost. Our surrogates are corrupt governments who hardly personify the lofty ideals we claim, and who in many cases are working against us. The withdrawal of US military forces from either country would probably result in a rapid collapse and disintegration of either national government, and the resumption of insurgency operations in urban and rural areas.

With this example, and with the examples of so many other US interventions, and with the inability (or unwillingness) of US policy to focus on the root causes of extremism rather than the symptoms, I see nothing on the horizon to convince me that the US engagements in Iraq or Afghanistan or the Long War against terrorism will be a success.

It is remarkable how soon public attention has abandoned the soaring rhetoric and unreality of the Bush Administration’s justifications for invading Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet while we have forgotten, others live amid the consequences of our actions. Hence, so must we.

Today, we are engaged in a vast policy of managing domestic political aspirations amidst the ruin we have created abroad. While we may believe that we can expunge the historical record after every 4-year election cycle, our Taleban and Al Quaeda opponents have a very different opinion. This is reality.

The idea that we can withdraw from Iraq, reinforce Afghanistan and “win” both conflicts is a political fantasy. Iraq has all but disintegrated as a single political entity, while its national government remains dominated by foreign and sectarian interests. The Shia government’s campaign against the Sunni “Sons of Iraq” will end in renewed bloodshed. Iranian influence has long consolidated over certain sections of Iraq, and will be there long after we leave. There will be no victory in Iraq, merely the management of diminishing expectations, defined by how few casualties and fatalities we measure per month.

The “Afpak” counter-insurgency will require at least a generation of massive military and technical assistance designed to take enduring majorities of citizens in both countries from the metaphorical dark ages into the contemporary middle class. Success will be defined by the extent to which corruption can be minimised, government services and education improved, minority and gender rights guaranteed, and religious extremism moderated. It will also require the lasting reform of the Pakistani intelligence services and military, which in itself will require a lasting peace between India and Pakistan and the resolution of the status of Kashmir.

Public debate on these goals is non-existent. We hear that we have to “save Pakistan” (who wants nuclear weapons in the hand of Al Quaeda, after all), but we hear nothing of the magnitude or cost of this goal.

As with so many other American engagements, I can foresee a point somewhere in the future when the goalposts are shifted, victory is declared, and the troops are withdrawn with a minimum of fanfare. It is, after all, the same strategy that has been followed in so many past engagements.

In the meantime, we will have further indebted our country and taken hundreds or thousands of casualties for a political objective in which we have no real vital interest, or which could have been handled more effectively through alternative means.

It’s hardly “change we can believe in.” It’s more like “business as usual.”

Sunday 17 May 2009

Thoughts on the 25th of March

I was checking email at the Starbuck’s on Pentelis Avenue on March 24th: we’ve just moved to Geraka, and OTE has managed to misplace our telephone line. At around 10:00, the door opened and about 40 Greek high school students walked in, resplendent in their low-rider jeans, unfortunate haircuts, nose rings and pimples. Since the Starbuck’s had been practically empty until then, I wondered what had happened, until it occurred to me that they must have been let out of school early due to the March 25th holiday tomorrow.

That got me thinking: here we are, in the middle of an economic crisis, with Greek educational standards slipping every year, and children are let out of school by 10:00? What did they do today? Probably practiced lining up and marching in the obligatory school parade. Have they learned anything about the 25th of March, or about the principle of self- sacrifice and struggle to achieve something you believe in? Probably not. Indeed, that might even be considered anti-social in our present system.

I also wondered what their parents are supposed to do today? Leave work and return to school at 10:00 to pick up their children and make sure they get safely home? Or, accept the alternative: that they are out early, and that the next interaction they will have with their children will be to drive them to the frontisterio some time this afternoon, or evening? Or simply to give up, knowing that they have little knowledge over what their children are doing or thinking anyway?

Driving back home—since working at Starbuck’s was now impossible—I mentioned this sad state of affairs to Christine. Her friend has a daughter in the second year of the foreign language university in Athens. They have not held class in the past four months. No one is sure why, but the fact is that no classes have been held. Rather than worrying about re-scheduling classes, it’s been tacitly agreed that the passing grade level of the end-of-term exams will be lowered, allowing everyone to pass.

So what do we end up with? A public system where Greeks earn degrees, but where their academic knowledge is increasingly theoretical and unadapted to the real world. Where you gain more by gaming the system and shouting political slogans rather than by challenging your pre-held conceptions and learning to learn. A system where you don’t actually do much in school, but rely on the frontisteria or the threat of violence to earn a passing grade.

Given this situation, I am opposed to allocating 5% of GDP to public education, as repeated governments have promised (and failed to deliver). Besides the fact that Greece can’t afford 5%, there seems to be little point in flushing more public money through a corrupt and incompetent system, without stringent, reality-based reforms. These should include the following:

(a) Longer school hours: the school day should last from 08:30 – 16:30, with an option for extra-curricular activities and study.

(b) A commitment to achieving learning outcomes in school, not out of it (i.e., not through frontisteria). This should involve modern pedagogical methods for language learning, arts, computer education, applied and theoretical sciences and physical education as well as other subjects.

(c) School (and university) guards with a real mandate for zero-tolerance policing. University asylum should be immediately eliminated. Students who continually misbehave should be expelled from the public school where they are currently enrolled, and this expulsion should form a permanent record in their curricula. The same applies to students who damage school property or otherwise cause disciplinary problems.

(d) The objective of the secondary education system should be what is already stated: to prepare well-rounded individuals with a facility for critical reasoning, prepared for active involvement in civil society. This means that the current [unstated] objective—cramming for university examinations—should be eliminated.

(e) Eliminating the pan-Hellenic university entrance exam system. Each institute of tertiary learning, academic or vocational, should design its own admissions system based on common criteria suited to each academic discipline. Admissions should be based on a 360 degree view of the student, including academic record, an admissions interview, and a comprehensive application which includes standardised testing (if applicable), an application essay, teacher recommendations and grades.

(f) A real investment in teacher training and teacher remuneration, subject to systematic teacher evaluation and the elimination from salaried employment in frontisteria. It is manifestly ridiculous for the tax-payer to pay a teacher for a standard instruction, and then to have the teacher gaining more money for the same instruction outside the school in the afternoon hours.

(g) Peer reviews should be introduced by equivalent institutions at the primary, secondary and tertiary levels. A process of accreditation should be developed every 3-5 years based on the peer review process as well as monitoring of learning outcomes and management indicators.

Each school or university should be paid directly out of the state budget, not through an intermediary (e.g. prefectures and municipalities, as is currently the case). Each institution should have a quadrilateral management system, comprising administrators, students, parents and teachers, and should have flexibility in choosing academic materials and curriculum scheduling. Each institution should have the right to raise funds privately, for its own account, always maintaining the public interest. All budgets should be transparent and online for public access and comment.

The role of the Pedagogical Institute and the School Textbooks Organisation in public education should be revised. Both institutions have done strong work in the past, but they are currently too slow and often too inaccurate for the modern workplace and modern society. They should be relegated to advisory roles. The role of quality assurance in education should be removed from the Pedagogical Institute: you cannot have one institution which develops curricula, develops educational materials, trains teachers and evaluates the system as a whole: there are too many obvious conflicts of interest.

In order to maintain educational competitiveness, the government should provide a real role for private education at all levels. There is no social or moral imperative to “crowd out” or disqualify the private sector from contributing to education. The government should develop ways of supporting private education, including through financial means.

The constitutional clause recognising tertiary education degrees from the public sector must be immediately repealed: it is an anachronism, a remnant of the traditional clientism which is ill-suited to the current era, and illegal both in terms of European Union law and common sense.

Finally, we need to abandon the socialist mentality of more education = better education. There has been a tremendous investment in all levels of education over the past 20 years, with the primary objective being to raise educational supply. Thus, new vocational and academic institutions have been established all over Greece, facilities built, and staff hired. We now need to invest in quality of education.

Greece needs centres of excellence: world-class institutions which correspond to the natural strengths and competitive advantage of the country. Disciplines such as archaeology and culture, shipping, agri-food processing, information systems and renewable energy need to be developed on an urgent basis. These institutions should focus not only on strictly academic achievement, but on vocational training and links with employment and the economy. The traditional divider between vocational and academic education is not useful in the global economy: institutions should therefore be merged and restructured as soon as possible to focus on results and outcomes, rather than institutional status.

Besides these centres of excellence, quality needs to be developed at every stage of education, from primary to tertiary. There has to be a real commitment to self-evaluation and peer evaluation, teacher training, accreditation and evaluation of learning outcomes. This process is only just beginning, but it should be the foundation of any future effort.

In absence of meaningful reforms, it’s hardly surprising that no one believes in the quality of the Greek educational system. Self-actualisation and self-realisation through education is out: instead, we are churning out cardboard cutouts of asocial, nihilistic youth who have been conditioned to succeed in the current system, but who are unsuited to the real world. Unless, of course, the real world changes, or converges, with their way of life. Which, judging from society around us, may be exactly what’s happening.

The results are regrettably visible everywhere in our society today: from hoodies and graffiti, to unionists burning the Belgian flag to protest a German takeover of OTE. The fact of high youth unemployment, or the “700 Euro generation” should not take anyone by surprise: Greek high school and university graduates are unskilled in the modern world of work. They have been conditioned to act upon theory, not reality. They have data store of theoretical facts, but little of the personal maturity, analytical capability or work ethic to use this in the context of the real world.

It is a bitter thing, to juxtapose our glorious history to the cruel reality of our present, and the crueller reality of our rapidly-approaching future. We have stifled the educational sector with the dead hand of monolithic government regulation. We have created not one, but several generations of graduates with no working skills or work ethic and little hope for value-creation in the modern world. We annually invest over EUR 80 billion in government spending, but continue to decline in nearly all international rankings, from educational standards to poverty levels, and investment competitiveness to health indicators.

Yet the real consequences of the riots and the wider education system today are crystal clear: that anti-social behaviour is acceptable, rather than exceptional. That the public system no longer serves the wider society and country, but its own narrow set of interests. That young people increasingly see little hope for the future, and indeed are learning the wrong lessons rather than the right ones.

All around us, the world is changing. Yet our government, and wider governing system refuses to learn from it or adapt to it, stuck in a nationalistic, misguided vision of history and reality. I no longer question whether the next round of street violence or student protests will erupt, I only question when.

Friday 15 May 2009

In Praise of Edward C. Taylor

In this age of cynicism tinged by fear and insecurity, it’s all too easy to forget that there are people out there who inspire us far beyond the ordinary. I’m not thinking of Jack Welsh or Rudi Giuliani or the latest hero of the month, but those few who, by their selfless example, contribute lasting benefits to humanity.

Yesterday, I was reading through the April issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly-one of these things I do without paying any real attention. Yet right inside the front cover, I saw the photo of a professor who had co-taught a Chemistry course I took a long time ago. I recognised his photo immediately, a soft-spoken, tweedy professor visibly and wholly in love with organic chemistry.

Edward C. Taylor (universally known as “Ted”) joined Princeton in 1954. He taught thousands of undergraduates and graduates during his teaching career at Princeton. In his research, he developed hundreds of chemical compounds, one of which made it to the break-through stage. This compound, Alimta is a heterocyclic, 2-ring chemical compound effective against lung cancer and several other forms of cancer. After years of research, he approached Eli Lilly, and in 1985 FDA clinical trials begain. Alimta was approved by the FDA in 2004, and has since helped thousands of cancer patients.

Ted was named a Hero of Chemistry by the American Chemical Society for this discovery. Along the way, he imparted his love of organic chemistry to thousands of undergrads who took that same introductory chemistry course. I still have the textbook: Bodner and Pardue – Chemistry: An Experimental Science.

What really moved me was learning that he donated his royalty income from Alimta to build a new, state-of-the-art, 263,000 square-foot laboratory to replace Princeton’s current chemistry lab. This lab will transform the research and teaching facilities, and hopefully provide the foundation for the next generation of breakthrough discoveries.

To me, dealing every day with the corporate effects of the debt bubble, and living in the dog-eat-dog environment of Greece where stories of corruption and failed expectations rule the daily news cycle, this is a welcome, entirely unexpected source of inspiration and hope.

I wish we had more gentle, unassuming professors dedicating their lives to research and development that visibly serves human progress and welfare.

I wish we had more researchers who donated their royalties develop state-of-the-art teaching and research facilities.

I wish we had more institutions like Princeton, which have so clearly inspired their faculty, students and staff.

Most of all, I wish I had paid more attention to Ted. Organic chemistry was probably my least favourite subject, and I certainly didn’t do well in that course. Yet here he is, smiling out of the Princeton Alumni Weekly in front of a chalkboard with a chemical formula and structure drawn on it, as he did week after week, year after year at Princeton. That brought back some unexpected memories.

JRR Tolkien wrote that we often find hope in the most unexpected of places. I renewed my hope, my optimism yesterday. God bless you Ted, and thanks.

Monday 11 May 2009

Barack Obama's Tax Code Sound Byte

Robert Samuelson’s Op Ed in today’s Washington Post, Tax Dodge Myths, is a welcome reminder of the insanity of the US Tax Code.

There is no justification that I can see for the US Government to tax the foreign earnings of either its multinational corporations or its citizens living abroad, providing they pay tax in their respective country of residence.

Most countries have a system of double taxation treaties: If I am registered in France, for instance, and I have a subsidiary in Cyprus, then I am taxed once on my income in Cyprus, and can repatriate the balance to France without income tax. There would be little point in having income taxed once in Cyprus taxed a second time in France. What’s the point, as long as income gained in France is declared and taxed at normal rates?

The same absurdity applies to personal income tax. As a US citizen, I am legally obliged every year to file a tax return with the IRS, even if 100% of my income is derived from outside the United States, and I am legally resident outside the United States.

Sure, I have a US tax exemption for the first $ 70,000 of income earned per year. But what right should the IRS have to tax me at US rates on income earned above $ 70,000 per year, especially since this income has already been taxed in Greece, my country of residence?

US citizens – corporate or individual – should have the right to be taxed a single time on their earnings from outside the United States. To double tax is inherently unfair, and only reinforces the negative incentive to avoid taxation by no declaring income at all.